The Gift

“I have to say I’m…well, no offense, but I’m surprised,” Dr. Alan Murphy said to Ali. His name was actually Ali bin Murr bin Omar Al-Chanaah in full, but Alan quickly decided to follow the Saudi Arabian tradition and call him simply “Ali.”

Doctor Ali looked up from the patient chart he was updating. He looked at Alan then followed his gaze to the group of women coming out of one of the hospital conference rooms. Quickly, he turned away. “Alan,” he whispered harshly, “it’s not our custom to ogle females. Turn your eyes from them.”

“I’m so sorry, Ali.” The man quickly complied, his face reddening. “I totally forgot.”

“Don’t let it happen again. This may be 2030, but there are certain constants in our society; this is one of them.”

“I… I won’t. I was just, like I said, surprised, that’s all.”

“Surprised, surprised,” Ali answered impatiently. He had spent many hours during the past week orienting the British doctor to the hospital as well as to life in Saudi Arabia. The visiting surgeon had tried poor Ali’s patience more than once. It was an honor to have him here to share his skills, but the man had a lot to learn about adjusting to Islamic culture. “What’s so surprising about a group of female doctors and nurses?”

“Oh, dear. I’m afraid that if my looking at the women disturbed you, you really won’t like what I was planning to say.”

Ali forced a smile. “Relax, my friend. If you need to be censured, rest assured, I’ll gladly take the responsibility upon myself.”

A sickly half-smile crossed Alan’s face, accompanied by an insincere chuckle. He was not accustomed to, nor did he enjoy, having another doctor rebuke him. “Never, uh, mind. It’s… Well, the workers here are very content and happy. That’s all. That’s very good.”

Ali gazed at Alan quizzically, then back to the space the women had occupied only moments before. A look of understanding crossed his features and a genuine smile now appeared. “They were all smiling, weren’t they?”

“Yes. Indeed. How did you know?”

“Oh, I’ve seen it myself. I just didn’t stare,” he said in mock scolding.

Alan smiled warily.

“Every three months,” Ali continued, “our female obstetricians meet with our female nurses–along with their counterparts from the rest of the country–to update them on any new procedures and make sure there are no problems. They’re always smiling when they exit. No men attend the meetings, nor are there male obstetricians or attending nurses. It would be… unseemly.”

“But why are they so happy when they leave?”

“Who knows?” Ali said with an exaggerated shrug of his shoulders. “Who understands women anyway?”

Some things were the same, even cross-culturally.

 

*  *  *

 

Fadwa twirled around, giggling, before throwing her arms up. She then hugged herself and dropped onto her bed with a smile and a sigh.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” she asked her three visiting friends.

“I’m sure Ishaq’ll think so,” Bahiya, Fadwa’s neighbor, responded with a crooked smile.

“So where’d you get that negligee, anyway?” Asma asked. “It’s absolutely sinful!”

Fadwa gasped. “Asma! Don’t say that! There aren’t any taboos in a couple’s relationship as long as they’re both comfortable.”

The young woman broke into peals of laughter. “Yes, Fadwa,” Asma answered with the feigned tone of an obedient schoolchild, “so you’ve said. Now answer my question. Where’d you get that?”

“My mother got it for me.” Laughter again. Who knew that anticipating a wedding could unbind such formerly forbidden topics? Lingerie! For the past six years of her life, Fadwa had been disguising the fact that she had the body of a woman. What a relief to finally wear something that revealed the fact.

“I wish it were me getting married,” Lulu lamented.

“Lu, don’t be like that,” Fadwa answered her little sister. “You’ll have your turn. You’re only fourteen!”

“It’s true, Lulu” Rana, another friend, answered. “I didn’t think boys would ever be interested in me, but my mother told me last week that seven—can you believe it, seven!—women have approached her, asking for me as a match for their sons. My mother said that she never had seven prospective matches. In fact, she told me that my father might never have even asked to marry her if it hadn’t been for his accident.”

“Why?” Lulu asked. “Your mother isn’t that ugly.”

“My mother isn’t ugly at all! How dare you say such a thing!”

“Sor-ry.”

Rana sniffed and turned from the girl, waiting several seconds before responding. “It wasn’t because my mother wasn’t pretty. In those days, families were more concerned with the character of a person than they were with their looks when it came to finding husbands or wives for their kids. Sometimes boys back then didn’t even see their brides’ faces until the wedding day. Outside the home, lots of women wore veils and black abayas all the time.”

“Ugh,” Asma responded. Then, with wide eyes, she slapped her hands over her mouth. Looking from face to face, she explained, “I’m just glad we’re allowed a little more freedom nowadays. I can’t imagine having to always cover up in black.”

“Me, either,” Fadwa said.

“Let me finish!” Rana said, raising her voice slightly. “The only reason that my mother didn’t have other mothers knocking at her door to ask for her hand was that so many able-bodied boys had signed up for military training. It was a crazy time. My father said our country was in some kind of jihad rage. My mother said it seemed like a fever had infected the boys and all they could think of was defending Islam. The only ones left behind were either sick or disabled. My father was in a wheelchair even back then, so he couldn’t go. But at least he got my mother!”

“Well,” Asma said, “let’s just be happy there are plenty of boys around now. Fadwa has a handsome and very physically fit young man waiting for her.”

The others gasped. With a light slap to her friend’s arm, Fadwa scolded, “Asma! Can’t you be a little more subtle?”

“So why don’t the young men want to fight the jihad nowadays?” Lulu asked.            Rana huffed. “I don’t know, Lu.” She paused for a moment before adding, “I know that my dad and uncle and their friends wonder the same thing. I’ve overheard them talking about it.”

“Let’s talk about something else,” Asma said in her most dramatic tone. After a pause, she said, “So Fadwa, will you dance for Ishaq in your new negligee or will you dance naked on your wedding night?”

“Asma!” the rest of them groaned.

 

*  *  *

 

“No, Mom. Not ‘iffy genetics.’ I said epigenetics. It means ‘on’ genes. Scientists study how they can modify genes without changing the sequence of DNA within a specimen. Adding molecules to the DNA structure makes a difference in the way genes are expressed.”

“What?”

Mariam sighed. “It doesn’t matter anyway, Mom. I’m moving on to obstetrics in the fall.”

“Oh!” her mother answered. “So you’ll be a baby doctor, right?”

“You got it,” she answered. “Hey Mom, would you please put Leena on the phone?”

“Hey, big sister,” Leena said a moment later. “What’s this about you becoming a baby doctor?”

Leena, now applying for grad school in England, kept abreast of current events better than her mother. “I thought you were still working on that experiment with the mice.”

“We finished it, and it was more exciting than we imagined. Remember I told you that, depending on what the female mice consumed during their pregnancies, certain genes could be ‘silenced’ in their offspring?”

“Yeah, yeah. Some were born brown and some yellow.”

“Yes, but that wasn’t the most startling thing we discovered. When the mice grew, the brown ones had significantly lower occurrences of diabetes, obesity, and cancer than their yellow counterparts. When we gave the mothers supplements that contained a simple methyl group, one specific gene was silenced. But the mice aren’t the exciting part. We can identify large portions of the human genome that respond similarly.”

“Mariam, you mean—”

“We don’t know what it means yet. My colleagues will keep me in the loop. Who knows? Maybe someday I can help Kingdom mothers and babies with the concepts I’ve learned.”

 

*  *  *

 

Youssouf sucked in deeply, closing his eyes to savor the sweet apple-flavored tobacco. He’d been looking forward to this time with five of his closest associates. Actually, with five of his closest friends. After ten minutes, the shisha was casting its soft blanket of lightheaded fuzziness on him. He listened to the hubble-bubble of the water as the smoke passed through it to enter the long, velvet-covered tube that carried the soothing tobacco essence to his mouth. His taut muscles began to relax. He allowed the sensual sweetness of the smoke to linger on his tongue before exhaling.

He smiled as he opened his chestnut eyes just a crack to gaze upon his comrades. Yes. They, too, were enjoying the hookah.

“Ah, my friends. It’s good to enjoy some moments of relaxation together, isn’t it?”

Gabr’s gaze floated to Youssouf. He smiled. Four of the man’s front teeth had rotted out of his mouth many years earlier, and the rest were the dull color of sand. Still, his lazy grin was a pleasant sight to Youssouf.

These men, these faithful five, had sacrificed much: their youth, at times their health, and all of the personal aspirations they had once possessed. They were of the committed few.

Now clouds of fruity smoke surrounded and relaxed them all.

“Naji. I see that you’re enjoying yourself.”

“Yes. I feel the water pipe draining away the stress of recent days. Still, I can’t completely forget the difficulties.”

“No. Nor should you,” Youssouf answered in a calming tone. “Our struggle to win victory for Allah will, I’m afraid, always be with us.”

Ismet’s gaze moved from the shiny brass base of his water pipe to the leathery face of his leader. “Youssouf. You disappoint me.”

The others jerked their necks to look at Ismet. No one dared speak this way to the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) servant.

“Oh, my friends,” Ismet hastened to add, seeing the ire he had raised. “I mean no disrespect. Many pardons,” he said, bowing his head toward Youssouf.

The leader’s eyes narrowed, all signs of tranquility erased from them. “I suppose you would like to explain yourself,” he answered in a low, dangerous tone.

Ismet dropped his pipe and stiffened his back. Folding his hands at waist level, he assumed the position of humble beseeching. “Of course you don’t disappoint me,” he said. “I only mean that I’ve prayed for a final, overarching victory for so long. I’ve pinned my hopes on it.”

Ismet squirmed slightly under Youssouf’s concentrated gaze before he finally released the man with a sad smile. “I understand, Ismet. It’s hard to wait. Still, we don’t know when victory will come, or whether it will even come in our lifetimes.”

“It would be easier, come quicker, if we could recruit some young blood to our cause. Some young Kingdom blood,” fifty-two year old Sha interjected. More than the others, Sha suffered from a number of physical maladies as a result of years spent in abnegation and deprivation. Nevertheless, though his years slowed his body, he was as dedicated to their cause as the day he pledged himself to it at age seventeen.

Youssouf returned a sad smile. “Ah, yes. Don’t we all wish for the old days, when young men without number were willing to sacrifice whatever was necessary for the cause of Allah.”

The others nodded, but no one spoke.

The remaining time in the hookah café was quiet. Though the comrades enjoyed the indulgence, they were unable to fully clear their minds.

 

*  *  *

 

As Mariam exited the conference room with the gathered female doctors and nurses, Sabira, a visiting gynecologist from Iran touched her sleeve. Sabira’s long dark hair was striking as it lay on her white uniform.

Mariam stopped to turn and look at her, her eyebrows asking what Sabira wanted.

The Iranian leaned forward and, with her mouth close to Mariam’s ear, said, “I have only one question for you. How did you do this?”

Pulling away so she could look at the woman’s eyes, Mariam answered, “Come. Join me in my office.”

The visiting physician knew of genetic manipulation in principle, though she’d never worked in the field. Mariam’s explanation fascinated her.

“When pregnant women go to their obstetricians for prenatal visits, the doctors give each a supply of vitamins. Only Saudi Arabian obstetricians and their nurses—all women—know that the supplements contain a specific methyl group molecule. And the invisible, ludicrously simple molecule turns off the aggression gene in every boy born in our country.

“After I graduated from The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine—”

“At the top of your class, I see,” Sabira said, pointing toward the certificate on Mariam’s wall.

“For that achievement, I won the coveted chair position of Chief of Obstetrics in the most prestigious hospital in all of Saudi Arabia. I couldn’t believe it. There were others with years of experience who were more qualified.

“From this position, I was determined to carry out the plan that a brilliant group of my colleagues from Duke and I had devised. Winning over other female obstetricians and their nurses was easier than I anticipated. They all had brothers and sons they didn’t want to see die in some unholy holy war.

“I always contended that, if mothers ran the world, there would be far fewer wars. This is my way of giving Kingdom women a chance to run their world.”

Sabira shook her head in wonder. “I’ve heard a lot of rumbling from Iranian men about how the Saudis can’t be depended on anymore to carry on holy jihad. I had no idea that the reason was a female obstetrician with guts.”

Mariam’s gaze was on the floor, but a definite smile marked her expression.

*****

Many men gathered to socialize in dewaniahs that evening after nightfall prayer, each cordially and respectfully welcomed to the special rooms. As custom had dictated for centuries, the men sat in circles, none more important than the others. Never did they turn the soles of their feet toward another, for that would show great disrespect. In some dewaniahs, the guests sat on couches. In the traditional ones, they sat directly on floors covered with richly patterned Persian carpets. Hosts offered handle-less cups of cardamom-flavored coffee, half-filled, to their guests. No one needed milk or sugar. Rather, sweet dates balanced the flavor of the strong drink.

The hospitable mood worked to relax the men so they could talk. “How are you?” “And your family?” They discussed, questioned, and considered other topics as well. Conversation in which a man learned nothing was a waste of time.

Although it was deemed discourteous to introduce unpleasant matters in conversation, it had been difficult—very difficult—to avoid one topic recently.

“Another business associate challenged me today,” an international businessman said in one dewaniahs.

“The same thing happened to me,” another chimed in.

“My clients—the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Kuwaitis, the Libyans,” the first man continued, “constantly badger me. ‘Where are the young men of the Kingdom who are willing to pay the ultimate price for jihad, for Allah, most gracious and merciful?’ they ask.

“I have no answer. Young men would rather study. Or start their own businesses. Or get married and start families. They’re more like girls than men. What’s happened to them? I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to bear the shame. Perhaps I’ll have to cut off commercial relations with non-Kingdom Muslims. But that would mean doing business with foreign infidels; how can I rely on such people for my livelihood?”

The older men in the group recalled how it had been. “Years ago, in the early days of the century,” one man began, “I thought that our country, too, should war against terror. Islamic fanatics were ruining the reputation of everyday Muslims. We all had to take a stand against them. They were terrorists.”

A middle-aged man continued the thought. “But that was a different time. The world has changed, and now Muslims outside our country challenge our peaceful non-involvement. The scary part is, I think maybe they’re right. We should be fighting for a pure world, free from the influence of the immoral West. Worldly music dulls our children’s ears. Their eyes have become corrupt, seeing things that you and I never even knew existed. They want to be like the impure, the profane.”

“Perhaps we did a disservice to ourselves to preach peace so loudly against fellow believers who were only trying to keep our lives free from such stains,” another, older man said. “Perhaps the fault is our own. All I know is that I can’t abide the constant goading from foreign Muslims—devout men, not fanatics.”

They all agreed. Something must be done. But first, they needed to find out whether some wrong teaching was blinding the eyes and squelching the fire from their young men. Were teachers espousing anti-jihad propaganda at school? Was WWComSys (World Wide Communication System) responsible? (Oh, for the days of unsophisticated television, radio, and Internet!) Maybe youth clubs and teams were unwittingly (or perhaps intentionally) teaching perversion. Were the Mutawa, their own religious police, doing all they could to discover any adulterations reaching their young men? Someone should be monitoring all of these areas. The faithful must expose the menace creating their crisis.

Later, lying in bed with their wives, these same men again bemoaned the failure of Kingdom youth. “Why?” they asked, staring through the dark at the ceiling. “Why are young men today so unwilling to sacrifice for the cause of Islam? Have they so little devotion to their god?”

“Oh, husband,” not one, but many of the wives responded. “You’re overreacting. We have good young men. I, for one, am glad that my son doesn’t want to throw his life away. The thought of him strapping a bomb onto his body or crouching to avoid being seen while he fights in some battle we’ll never win makes me shudder.”

Some husbands were silent at this reaction. Some raised their voices. Others lashed out with hurtful words. A few responded to their wives with harsh slaps.

Their women did not understand. They were women.

 

*  *  *

 

“So,” Sabira said, “are you going to tell me how I can do this in Iran?”

“You realize, don’t you, that this will turn your country upside down? That the lives of everyone—from girls about to be married, to grizzly fanatics, to ordinary men who seem to find nothing more enjoyable than sitting around and talking—will be different if you do this.”

“I’m counting on it,” Sabira answered.

– Previously published in: ExPatLit.com, Spring 2009 –

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