Posts Tagged ‘life in Bahrain’

I caught myself red-handed earlier this week. It was somewhere between the excessive consumption of ginger cookies and the laundry. I actually caught myself hoping that Christmas would be “perfect.”

Catching myself shooting for perfection is a wake-up call for me these days, so I set my expectations on to mull with the cider.  The word that eventually bubbled up was “character”; I want a Christmas with character.

In Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird, she says about characters in our writing, “Now, a person’s faults are largely what make him or her likeable.” (p.50)  I think that is true not just for people, but for homes and events and relationships. Of course, we spoil our appreciation of all that lovable imperfection when we demand flawlessness.

At first, thinking about a Christmas with “character” started me down another road of unrealistic expectations. Does creating character require, for example, bungee jumping in Santa suits? How creative do I need to be to make Christmas character-filled?

At that point, another take on “character” came to me. Each Christmas has its own character. I do have a role in shaping that, but I am not the supreme being that makes Christmas what I want it to be. In fact, I enjoy Christmas most when I step back and allow it to take on the shape that it wants, the character that comes alive in part from what each family member and friend brings to it, and in part from what is beyond the control of any of us. But in the end, as a child is more than just parts of dad and parts of mom, a special time like Christmas seems to have an individual breath and life that is more than just what we put into it. And just like with a child, trying to control Christmas doesn’t go so well; it causes me to miss out on watching and enjoying what it is becoming in its own right.

So I’m remembering the characters of past Christmases. The year that Christmas was during Ramadan, and we were trying to juggle being part of Bahraini culture with celebrating our own traditions. The year that someone put curry in the turkey gravy. The year that I freaked out in the grocery store on Christmas Eve because there were shiny Christmas decorations dangling over the ladies covered in black, and the speakers were literally blasting out “Feliz Navidad,” while the guys behind the meat counter sported red Santa hats. The year a whole gang of us had a sleepover at a friend’s house on Christmas Eve and opened our stockings together the next morning. Every year, singing “Silent Night” holding lit candles with a room full of Christians and Muslims who loved us and wanted to share our holiday with us.

This year, Christmas’s character is both happy and sad for us, and I appreciate both. I am grateful for the sadness because I have special friends and beautiful memories in Bahrain to miss. And I am savoring the incredible sweetness of being with family in America for Christmas. Feeling one allows me to feel the other more fully, and vice versa. And I am trying to sit back and enjoy experiencing this Christmas for what it is.

I’d love for you to share about the character of your Christmas in the comments.

Happy Holidays to all of you!


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Every year, halfway through the month of Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting), kids in the Arabian Gulf dress up in traditional clothes and go around the neighborhood from house to house collecting candy, nuts, money, and chips from the neighbors. In the more cohesive communities, families and groups have tables with sweets and drinks set out, strings of colored twinkle lights decorate the neighborhood, and music plays in the streets.

Girgaoun was one of my favorite cultural activities in Bahrain. In recent years, we spent Girgaoun across the main street from our house in the village near us.  Our side of the street was a newer neighborhood with a mix of families from different backgrounds and different areas, even a few different nationalities, whereas the village nearby had been around for years, with families living and dying together and marrying each other and all knowing everything about each other. It has a typical small-town feel, but it was right across the street from a suburb-style neighborhood.

Now, the complication of Girgaoun is that, within our small country of Bahrain, it can actually be celebrated on three different nights. It all has to do with the clerics sighting the moon at certain times, and of course there are politics involved, so often Sunnis celebrate on one night, Shi’a who follow one cleric celebrate the next night, and other Shi’a celebrate a third night. Sometimes members of a single family have different religious allegiances, so a wife may not even be celebrating on the same night as her husband (not to mention starting and ending the fast on different days too!)

So each year I would call my friends and try to get the inside scoop and feel out the most likely day for our village to have their festivities. I always felt a little nervous getting the kids dressed up and wondering if we were going to show up in the streets all decked out only to have it turn out that it was the wrong night.

Girgaoun 2005


Finally, we would make it out, wondering on the walk over whether it was the right night or if we were going out too early.  We would get all nervous and jittery and finally breathe a sigh of relief when we rounded the corner and saw kids trip-trapping around in their glittery dresses and fancy vests and carrying a bunch of plastic grocery bags just to manage the loot.

 Girgaoun at Bethany’s preschool ’04
Even though we did not live in that village, people recognized us and always seemed happy to see us. Grandmas and moms and dads sat outside giving out treats, urging the kids and even the parents to take more. (Americans never give candy to the parents, so that one really surprised me!) One notices how the women are more visible during Girgaoun than at almost any other time of the year. In fact, the whole community is more visible. So many holidays are celebrated indoors with the extended family, but this one is an out-in-the-streets, let’s-all-party kind of holiday. It doesn’t even matter that it’s nearly 200 degrees out and if we could harness the watersource pouring down the middle of everybody’s backs, we could probably stop Bahrain from being a desert.

In any case, it was one of those glimpses I used to get from time to time of what it felt like to really be part of the community there in Bahrain, instead of being an outsider, and I loved it.

Girgaoun at Josh's preschool 2007

We affectionately referred to making the Girgaoun rounds as “trick-or-treating,” but this year Bethany and Josh experienced the American version for the first time. Josh, who loves dressing up in costumes, especially if he can scare people, changed his mind about his costume several times a week from September onwards. Bethany approached things more cautiously, feeling very uncertain about what constituted an appropriate costume in this culture, and finally decided to be a pirate. Josh was a skeleton.

The county informed residents of the Halloween rules: Trick-or-treating should take place from 6 pm until 8 pm. Only children 12 and under can participate. Try not to use masks. Inspect candy carefully.  I remember parents being worried about poisoned candy back in “my day,” but the official rule sheet was a surprise to me. Things have changed.

We went out at the stroke of 6, nervous that we weren’t out at the right time, wondering about unspoken rules and feeling like a foreigner and outsider just the way I used to in Bahrain. But we relaxed once we saw the first group of costumed kiddies out with their parents. After that, we had fun. Josh was totally in his element. He loved the spooky stuff; he loved that adults kept telling him how scary he looked in his skeleton costume; he definitely loved the candy. Bethany felt that the experience was essentially different from Girgaoun (even though she sang the Girgaoun song on one of the empty streets), largely because the spookiness factor of Halloween contrasted sharply with the celebratory atmosphere of the Gulf holiday.

For me, it felt familiar. Neighbors out in front of houses hanging out as they handed treats out to the children. Children giddy from the costumes and high on sugar. Neighbors happy to see each other and gushing over kids that they would normally overlook. Halloween was my first glimpse into feeling like this American neighborhood might be a community. I felt emotional and nostalgic, partly from missing Bahrain, but even more because just like those celebration days in Bahrain, Halloween was a tiny little window into something that I haven’t quite reached yet in America–a sense of belonging.

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I walked into Steve’s office and sat down on the edge of the sofa with a sigh. “I’m dreading today’s parent-teacher meeting at Josh’s school. I always feel like an idiot.”  Steve replied, “Too bad I can’t come with you. Stupidity loves company!”  (Hmmm…maybe that’s why we humans always feel compelled to divide ourselves into “us” and “them.”)

Yes, I definitely like to have someone else there to feel like an idiot with me at these events. At the last kindergarten open house, Josh’s teacher good-naturedly pointed out to all the moms that I had sent a bottle of Dettol disinfectant in response to her request for a “small bottle of Dettol,” whereas everyone else had understood that she wanted hand sanitizer. I couldn’t even understand the following witty remark she made about me.

I understand a lot of what goes on, but group meetings where the teacher lectures us is a lot harder than a one on one conversation.  I miss enough of the small details to leave me either a little confused or a lot confused. And definitely slow to respond.

So…company. Of course it is always great to have another foreigner in these situations with me, as a buffer from the humiliation of being the only one who does not get what is going on. But I have found other forms of company to be very refreshing  in these lonely situations too.

Last year in the pre-K class, Josh’s teacher was giving us a very strict lecture about how to deal with our children with homework. I understood that tanqeet was absolutely forbidden, but I couldn’t figure out what tanqeet was. I leaned over to the mom next to me, who kindly explained that it meant making dots for the kids to trace over when they were supposed to be writing letters themselves. (The teacher took the whole thing very seriously. I always felt like I had done something wrong with her.) In a room of full of women where I stuck out like a palm tree in Alaska, it was so helpful to have a mom next to me who was willing to chat and answer my vocabulary questions, and even to let me say back to her what I understood so that she could tell me if I got it right. (Remind me to be like her if there are ever foreign moms at my kids’ schools in the future!)

At Bethany’s public school, her friend Iman’s mom gave me a different kind of company. She was the one who always called me about homework assignments and questions she had about school. Her sweet little girl was a bit sidetracked about getting information home to her mother. Every time she called me, though, I thought it was strange. I figured she could probably find someone more capable than me to give her answers, but it did a lot to help me feel like a part of the community. I actually felt like someone who belonged and was competent when she called me for help.

So, Steve’s quote (stupidity loves company) is on the top of my list of great quotes for the month. It has me thinking seriously, though about how I might reach out for different types of company in situations where I am feeling embarrassed or ashamed, and about how I can give company to others who might be in that situation too.

P.S. This is a birthday party we had for Bethany at her preschool class a few years ago.

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