Can we be friends?

You would think that being in Bahrain for nearly 3 months that I would have spoken to many people, especially because we venture out into malls and play grounds so much. But that isn't the case, many Arabic women (and men) have approached Skye and touched her cheeks or said hello to her but none have ever spoken to me, or even made eye contact with me. Until today at a coffee shop in Dana Mall. While I was waiting for my coffee to be made Skye spotted a little boy in a stroller about the same age as her and started to wave. His mother was wearing the traditional abaya and a full veil with just her eyes showing and I was wishing I had an abaya myself so I could feel less like a sore thumb. I'm on unfamiliar ground here, I'm not sure of the etiquette with Arabic women and I don't want to offend by being too forward or have them think I am staring so I avoid eye contact and usually offer a brief smile then brush Skye's hair out of her eyes or prompt her to wave.....anything to take the awkwardness out of the situation. Anyway, the woman and her child were right next to us and she reached out and touched Skye's cheek and looked right at me! And then she asked "What country are you from?" I had to lean forward, how embarrassing.........but my ears aren't that great to begin with and she was speaking from behind her veil and she had an accent although she spoke english quite well, it all added up to me feeling like an ass though when I had to ask her to repeat herself. Anyway, I told her I was from America, I wasn't sure what kind of reaction I was going to get, would she walk off, yell at me, or worse? No, instead she just repeated America in an interested tone and then asked Skye's name and told me her sons name when I asked. At that point Casey came up with my coffee and she quickly made her exit as Arabic women do not talk to strange men without introductions.....usually made by their husbands. I was sad my first interaction with an Arabic woman ended so quickly.

On the way home I wondered what she thought about me being an American. Was she as curious about me as I was about her? Did she wonder what life in America was like or did she already have a notion about it based on tv shows? Did she think that we are oppressive to Muslims like so many people here believe? I wished I could have sat down in that coffee shop with her and asked her name and exchanged stories about our kids. Yes, I am American and she is Arabic.....I am of no strong religious conviction and she is Muslim, many times people in our respective cultures are at odds with each other but if we sat down together we probably would have found out how much we have in common. We've both been through babies crying in the night, the pains of teething and tantrums, we could probably trade stories about the silly and annoying things that our husbands do or how the price of produce in the market goes up but the quality goes down. We've both been through pregnancy, child birth, puberty, marriage......had our shares of joys and disappointments, heartbreak and happiness, we've experienced death and loss in our families and will one day experience it ourselves. Many of our values are even the same or at least very similar. I really think we would have had a lot to tell each other over a cup of coffee, perhaps enough to have become friends.

I think about what our news reports tell us about Muslims and it isn't flattering........pretty much the same way that Arabic news reports talk about Americans. And I wonder what exactly these news networks are trying to accomplish. I am glad that I don't judge a group of people based on how one segment of that group acts. I never have thought or would think that Muslim=terrorist, that notion is just ignorant and wrong....but I did have the notion that all Muslims probably hate Americans so I came here with the attitude that I would have to seek out other Americans or Brits to befriend. And that is a sad opinion to have. So I have to wonder, what is it that the people of Bahrain think about us, do they want to give us a chance, to be friends, to find out what our day-to-day lives are really like? Are they as eager as I am to become friends? I yearn to cross that cultural barrier and make friends here, friends who I might not ever see again when I return to America but would keep in touch with anyway, friends that will leave an indelible mark on my life.

Yet I am hesitant, this seems like such a formal culture with so many opportunities for errors in social interactions. I've read books and websites on social interactions in the Middle East and it just serves to make me more nervous. When it comes down to it, we are all women, women who cry and laugh, who kiss boo-boo's and change diapers, who cook and clean, and carry our childrens hopes and dreams in our hearts.........we are all human and there is no reason why we can't be friends.


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