Other than the new found friends I made from our umrah group, I made two more new friends amidst the crowd in Masjid Nabawi. And strangely enough, both are teachers. The first one approached me with ‘ Salam, can you read Arabic?’ She had a black veil on her face and she was dressed typically Saudi, with only her eyes showing. I was quite surprised that her English, especially her diction was so good. I said yes I can read Arabic but no, I don’t understand Arabic. Through her eyes, which were the only features I could see from her face, I saw her smiled. She gave me a dzikir card which she bought in a stack from the bookshop outside and was distributing it to everyone where we were sitting. She thought I was a Filipino. Or an Indonesian. When I told her I was from Singapore but living and working in Malaysia, she got excited and exclaimed ” Ohhh I love Kuala Lumpur!!! We Saudis love to holiday there, go shopping at Pavilion and KLCC.” Yes, ma’am, I know that very well :P. She was in KL just last year and she was chirping excitedly about her holidays in KL when I couldn’t resist asking, how come her command of the English language is really good?
She revealed that she is an English teacher who graduated from the faculty of languages in the University of Riyadh. I couldn’t resist asking further, ‘Do you have to wear the whole full black abaya+niqab when you are teaching?’ She laughed and that suddenly made me feel that I had just asked a silly question. ‘No sister..’ She said, her eyes still laughing. ‘University is divided into two parts, the male campus and female campus. All schools in Saudi are divided into male and female buildings. When we enter the ladies side of the building, there is a locker room where all these are taken off and we wear whatever colouful things we fancy since it is all about female teachers and female students.’
Achso. So THAT explains all these sexy colorful clothes I see in their departmental stores and malls. Like if all I see were black robes and veil, when do they actually dress up? But now I have the answer. They dress up in their own ‘harem’ of ladies or in front of their husbands/male family members. We chatted further while waiting for Zuhur, most common topic would of course be the Raudhah stampede which we go through on a daily basis in Medinah. We exchanged email addresses as well but we parted after zuhur without me even knowing how she looks like because like the rest of the Saudi women, they kept their veils on their faces in public.
The second friend I made was on my last day in Medinah. After I had done the farewell visit to Raudhah, said goodbye to the Prophet, to Uthman and Umar peace be upon them all, I had gone around Masjid Nabawi to take photos with the husband. Then came zuhur time and I went in for my very last prayers there for this trip, feeling all sappy and sentimental et al when suddenly, a really beautiful lady in long hijab plonked herself next to me. In her hands, she was holding a book on Muhammad in French. I blurted out ‘ Are you from France?’ She looked surprised but then quickly smiled and asked me ‘Parlez-vous français??’ I told her I can’t speak French but I can do English and German if she can. In halting English and smattering German she said she can only do fluent French but she can try English but she warned me her English is really, really not good. So we tried conversing in English. She is from Paris and a teacher teaching Economics in a junior college. Great. Another teacher. Is Allah trying to tell me something here? Two retired teacher roommates and two random teachers sat next to me right before zuhur in Masjid Nabawi.
She went straight for the cut asking me if I am Indonesian. Same ol, same ol. Anyway, I asked her, trying to speak as slowly and as coherently as I could about the whole hijab fiasco in France recently, what with the banning of hijab in government sector and how she as a teacher in a government school deal with her hijab issues. With a sad expression, she told me Muslims in France just had to ‘make do’. In Paris where she is teaching, teachers or government civil servants like her who happen to be French AND Muslim, they take the desperate measures i.e leave the home with hijab and then at the doorstep of their workplace/schools, take off their hijab just so that they could carry on working/schooling. After work/school, they put on their hijab again outside the doorstep of their workplace/schools.
That piece of info was very humbling for me. I realised that I am indeed lucky that I do not have to go through all that. At the same time, I also feel a tinge of sadness for my other sisters in Islam here who have the freedom and opportunities to don the hijab in a place where their lives are not threatened by it and yet let the opportunity and freedom to just pass like that.
I have a third best friend that I made there though and this one is not a teacher. It is not even a person. Bearing in mind we stayed at Movenpick Hotel, and Movenpick is well known around the world for what else, if not their yummilicious Movenpick ice-cream. Put sweltering dry desert setting and freaking hot days, the readily available SR7.00 per cone Movenpick ice-cream of various flavors soon became my best buddy, and our dates with each other sometimes be as much as 3 times a day. Even the seller recognised me by the face and the ‘telekung’ and he always had that ‘You again Hajjah?’ laugh/snigger when he sees my grey ‘telekung’ top walk towards his Movenpick ice-cream stand…