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The good, the funny, the weird

My life here is weird.  I hear heavy artillery most nights around 9 p.m.  Drones fly overhead on a regular basis, and the helicopters fly so low that they always stop conversation.  But the war zone part of this life isn’t the only “abnormal” thing about it.  Here are a few others:

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We eat meals on the floor, every single meal of the day.  I honestly can’t even remember the last meal that I ate at a table.  It was probably in the capitol when we were there last month.  I do like eating at tables, but our house just doesn’t really have a room to accommodate one.  We even bought a table last spring in hopes that we would just figure something out.  We haven’t.  But, locals eat on the floor all the time, so it’s not a big deal.  Also, my kitchen is outside.  Not literally stove-in-the-dirt outside, but in a building completely separate from my house.  This is also pretty common here because it gets so crazy hot that nobody wants the heat of their cooking adding more heat to their already-sweltering abode.  This has kept me from my bad habit of late night snacking.

My husband has not met a single one of my friends.  Not one.  Here, men and women are totally segregated except within their families.  In fact, men don’t even talk to each other about their wives.  Instead of saying “How’s your wife?” they say “How are your children?”  Yep, women get lumped in with the kids.  However, there is a huge double-standard here.  Because I’m a foreign woman, it’s somehow acceptable for my friends’ husbands and brothers to see and talk with me.  When Levi and I go to a family’s home for a meal, we are immediately ushered into separate rooms upon arrival.  The ladies of the family don’t dare step foot into the mens’ dining room, but one or two of the men of the family will almost always step into the ladies room to meet Laila and me.  But, I won’t complain about this.  When it’s late and we are away from home, Laila is going to have a meltdown.  The men are a great transit service for Laila to get to Daddy.

Have you ever told a chubby baby “You’re so cute I could eat you up!”  Ok… no?  Maybe that’s just me, then.  Well, I actually see my friends biting the cheeks of toddlers and babies.  Yep.  Smooch, SMOOCH, CHOMP.  Not hard or anything, just a little love bite.  I think it’s precious, actually.  They’ll also pinch their cheeks and then kiss the fingers that did the pinching.  Maybe that’s a good way to get your Xs and Os when you’ve got a virus or something.

ImageLong pants, long shirts, long sleeves, burqa, and rockin’ hot shoes.  Yes, it’s ALL about the shoes.  They may be covered head to ankle, but local ladies’ feet are almost always looking fabulous, albeit covered with red henna.  I’ve own some of the local style shoes, and they’re AWFUL.  Granted, I’m really not a fan of heels, but I will wear the comfortable kind on occasion.  Theirs are the tight, blister-giving, acrylic kind that kind of remind me of a grown-up rendition of the jelly shoes that I wore when I was a kid.

The other day when I was at my neighbors’ house, we were casually sitting around and drinking tea.  One of my friends, I’ll call her “Abbi,” said “Hey Betsy, watch this.”  She called over her 5-ish (maybe 6) year old daughter, and then pulled out her breast.  Her daughter promptly started suckling.  Don’t get me wrong, I realize there are plenty of people who nurse their kids way past toddlerhood (or much older).  I’ve been to plenty of countries where that’s the norm.  It doesn’t make it feel any less… well, awkward.  Either way, those kids are actually receiving nutrients from their mothers.  When I asked Abbi if she was still lactating (this daughter is the youngest), she said “No, but she thinks she’s a baby.”  Er, ok.  We’ll just chalk that up to a “We’re friends, so this is fine” moment.

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Posted by on April 1, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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From Under the Blue

You see them in the news, but that’s about it.  You would be hard-pressed to find someone wearing one of these blue (or any other color) garments anywhere outside of Central Asia, although you may see some muslim ladies sporting the black abaya and full face covering in almost any major metropolis of the world.  Burqas are heavy, ugly, and not well-ventilated.  They are literally a headache.

If you were to ask a local family the reason for it, they would probably tell you it’s for protection.  It protects women from the stares of wandering eyes, which in turn protects the chastity of the women.  The truth is, if you don’t understand the very non-western view of honor and shame, you’ll never understand what the burqa is all about.  I’ll try to break it down.  The honor of families here is, to a large degree, wrapped up in the chastity of its women.  If a woman breeches her chastity, it puts a huge black mark on the family’s honor.  Chastity can be defined differently by different families and different regions.  For instance, one family may deem it acceptable for their daughter to attend classes with males, while another would never allow their daughter in the same room as any males aside from her father and brothers.  One girl may be scolded for being seen talking with a non-familial male, but this could be completely acceptable for others.  In any case, the family works hard to protect its honor, and that means working extra hard to protect the purity and chastity of the females.  When you hear about “honor killings,” this is a family going to extremes trying to protect its honor.  A woman has somehow breeched the boundaries of chastity, and in order to “restore the honor” of the family, they kill her.  Please hear me out here; this is an extreme.  I know many of my local friends find this practice to be abhorrent.  But it happens, so let’s not pretend.

The burqa is a cover which serves to protect a woman from the unthinkable.  The unthinkable.  These are the actions of a man who won’t control himself, a man who has become captive to his own selfish thoughts and then acts on them.  Rather than enforcing a device to make men control themselves, this society and many others have decided women will be the responsible parties for this problem of sexuality outside of what is deemed appropriate.  Another contributing factor to the burqa is the belief is that women have more demons taunting them than men, and they are therefore more susceptible to the temptations of sexual misconduct.

Call it inhumane or an object of misogyny.  Fine.  But I cannot deny the fact that some women really do want to wear burqas.  If someone would have told me this a couple years ago, I would have called them a liar or simply misinformed.  Now that I live here and wear one myself, I understand that ideology.  Women here realize how much of their family’s honor is bound up in their behavior.  Not just their virginity, but their un-taintedness is held in high esteem.  No one wants to bring shame to their family, and that is one of the biggest fears of most non-westerners. A lot of women here feel a very real sense of protection under their burqas, and taking it away from them would be stripping away their sense of protection and privacy.  On the other end of the spectrum, some women really do have a pure hatred for their burqas and would be glad to see them burn in a giant flame of fury.

Living here has presented a lot of tough questions.  One of the many for me was whether or not I would wear a burqa.  After months of deliberating, I realized how much I appreciated the anonymity it provided.  It’s true; plenty of men really do make ugly remarks at women, and especially at the fair-skinned ones.  Being under a burqa makes me a nobody in public.  While I don’t exactly relish that thought, at least I’m not getting my rear grabbed in the bazaar.  Truthfully, there are a lot of reasons I wear that thing.  I have some very conservative friends here, and when I’m covered up, they know I’m “safe.”  Meaning, I abide by a standard of dress and modesty that they value.  I want to show them that I love and care about them, and wearing a burqa affords me that opportunity.  It’s the least I can do, especially when I consider how much others have sacrificed to show me their love.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have local friends who hate the burqa and refuse to wear it.  To them, I know it seems I’ve succumbed to the people who are trying to oppress them.  Maybe they’re right.  And for some amount of time, I felt I shouldn’t wear it in order to support their kindling fire for justice and equality.  But that responsibility is theirs alone, and as a foreigner, there is little I can do to bring about that change.  They have to want it and fight for it themselves.

I write about the burqa because to many non-muslim westerners, it is one more reason to hate or pity people in this part of the world and muslims in general.  To understand the burqa, one must take the time to understand and appreciate our differences, of which there are many.  And that’s ok.  But before you make a judgment about the burqa, remember the woman under it.  She is a human being with feelings and opinions.  She, like you, wants to be loved and treated with respect.  She wants to honor her family, and donning a burqa may be a small part of the responsibility she carries to uphold it.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

A Wedding With Tears

When Nancy invited me to her niece’s wedding, there were several things I knew to expect.  The marriage would be arranged, the bride would be young, and there would be crying.  These things are the norm in this country, and especially in River City.

When I laid eyes on the young bride, I realized that she was even younger than I’d expected.  She looked about 12 or 13 years old.  When I inquired about her age, the ladies looked at each other and decided that she was probably about 15 years old (nobody really knows exactly how old they are here).  These women too, discussed that they were all around 15 years old when they married.

The bride’s sister eventually entered the room and seated herself next to the bride.  They exchanged whispered words as they held each other and wept bitterly.  While it is customary for the bride to cry at her wedding, this kind of crying and at this particular time was not normal.  Some of the bride’s relatives shot the bride and her sister looks of shame.  The bride’s tears, at an appropriate time, show that she will miss her family.

Most of the time, these tears represent a lot more than the sorrow of leaving home.  They represent the fear of starting a new life in a stranger’s home, often being subjected to vigorous labor by her new mother-in-law.  Of course, it’s also not unusual for the bride to be familiar with her new family; marriage between first cousins is still very common here.

As we prepared to leave the wedding, I took the child bride’s lovely hennaed hand and spoke gently to her.  “I pray that God will give you a good life, that you will be happy with your new husband.”  I don’t know what her future holds, but she is not the first and will not be the last young bride sold, or in her case, traded, for marriage.

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Cheri

My language teacher, Cheri, is pretty amazing.  She married at the ripe old age of 30, which in a land where women are usually married at age 15, is pretty ancient.  Cheri’s husband, Jim, was a widower, so Cheri inherited all of his children when they married.  She loves each of them like they were her own, despite some of the struggle that came with such a dramatic transition.

Five years ago, Jim was kidnapped.  Alone and afraid with her step children, Cheri was forced to hear the news and stay updated through Jim’s brothers because, well, Cheri is a woman.  No captor around here would try to negotiate with one of those.  They were demanding all kinds of money and making outrageous claims, but it at least confirmed that Jim was alive.

“I had to sell all of my jewelry,” she told me.  “It didn’t matter to me anyway.  The only thing I wanted was Jim.  Every night, I would cry.  I tried to hide my sadness from the children so they wouldn’t lose hope.  We didn’t know if we were ever going to see him again,” Cheri whispered.  She spoke in her sweet broken english to keep her step daughter from understanding our conversation.

After a month in captivity, an agreement was met.  For a ransom of 21,000 rupees, Jim was promised to be returned.  That’s 250 bucks.  But to a poor local at the time, that kind of money was more than they might make in 6 months.  And in a place where people are hardly making it day to day, no one has that kind of money saved up.

“He doesn’t talk about what happened when he was gone,” Cheri said.  “When I saw him again for the first time, he was wearing the same thing he had on the night they took him.  He was thin and looked like he had been hurt badly, but I don’t know what happened to him…”

The ramifications of it all have been pretty huge.  Jim’s youngest daughter would cry uncontrollably every time he left for work, and it went on for months.  She’s so fearful, in fact, that she refuses to go to school or be a part from Cheri. Ever.  Despite Jim’s silence on the issue, he is a wonderful father and husband to his family.

As we finished up my language lesson, Cheri kissed my cheeks and hugged me tightly.  I looked at her and her step daughter and tried to imagine the terror they’ve lived through.  My eyes welled up with tears as I gave her one last hug goodbye.  I learned a whole lot more than just imperative verbs today!

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

A River City Wedding

After spending 30 minutes in front of a mirror perfecting my best Tammy Faye look, my face was appropriately caked up for a traditional River City (our city’s pseudonym) wedding.  Since I am the pastiest shade of puerto ricans living or dead, I always skip the ever important skin whitening powder worn by just about every female wedding guest in all of Central Asia.

Upon arrival, my friend and I were taken into the bride preparation room where we watched the young bride transform into a celebrity.  Her hair was masterfully piled and pinned up to her head, and her makeup, not excluding the whitening powder, was the perfect picture of local trendiness.  Little boys and young girls pushed and shoved their way to the window to catch a glimpse of the transformation.

“Come watch the dancing with everyone else,” the groom’s aunt commanded us.  My excitement turned to embarrassment as we found our places in the crowd.  For varying reasons, foreigners are sometimes treated as the honored guests at weddings here.  While the other guests sat on the pavement to watch the dancing, we were put in two lonely chairs smack dab in the middle of the crowd because, apparently, our lack of language fluency and overall foreign looking-ness just wasn’t weird enough.  I chatted with a few local girls and conversation was the usual- the fact that I’m nearly 27 and only have one child (and that I need to hurry up and have a son), what I think of the burqa, if I love my daughter more than my husband or vice versa… you know, the usual.  I asked them their names told them how beautiful I thought they all were.  The five of them were all related, and their wide smiles and identical laughter made it obvious.

The time soon came for us to leave, and we said our goodbyes to the groom’s father, both of his wives, and no less than 30 daughters and nieces.  It was a lovely night.

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Doing what I should have been doing…

I probably should have started blogging a long time ago.  Not because everyone (maybe anyone) is dying to hear what I have to say or will even take a gander at my words.  I need to blog for me.  I own a journal, and I use it often.  But, there’s something about writing out words that are more thoughtfully articulated than what I tend to write in my trusty journal.  Preserving and remembering the life that we are living here is important to me, and I need to do a better job of that.

Levi and I made the decision to live in a crazy place.  We prayed about it a lot, and we decided that living life among the impoverished and loving a people so broken by war, despite the risks, was worth every ounce of our life and energy.  So here we are, several years later.  While I cannot and will not state exactly where we live, this blog will be about the heartaches and joys of living life in a broken but slowly developing country.

Oh yeah, and I wear a burqa.

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2011 in Uncategorized

 
 
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