Snow/Unaccustomed Earth/Girls of Riyadh
Tradition can be thought of as an annual family ritual like a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. Traditions can also apply to communities such as when the nation watches the lighting of the White House Christmas tree on television. Not everyone in one community or even one family always celebrates in exactly the same way and exactly the same time.
Another way to define tradition according to Oxford American Dictionary (728) is as “a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting.” That definition applies more to what this essay will be discussing. Even better is the fourth definition in the list “a continuing pattern of cultural beliefs or practice” (Oxford 728).
The characters in the three novels Snow, Unaccustomed Earth and The Girls of Riydah are all facing challenges to their traditions. Mostly the children and the people in their twenties are caught “in between” in some way. This essay will describe how the people in their twenties are trying to deal with traditions from a country they have left and the new traditions in the country they now have a home. Globalization has also made a generation able to see how the rest of the world lives. This makes them view themselves in a different way. Many want to break away from past traditions for a better life or to make an identity for themselves different from that of their parents. Maybe they want to accomplish both.
In this essay we will explore how characters in each novel deal with tradition and how they change because of new ideas. The way clothing is used as a symbol of culture and rebellion will be explored.
In Snow the people in a small isolated village named Kars are no longer as isolated. Members of their community travel abroad for work and strangers from Istanbul and other parts of the world pass through the town. Kadife is a young Muslim woman who is seriously thinking about removing her headscarf in public and possibly burning it. People in the village and her family, are especially astonished. Even close to the end of the book when we learn her decision her sister asks her father, “Daddy, dearest, can you explain to me why we should be against Kadife baring her head?” (Ramuk 365).
The idea of not wearing a scarf is a very strange and dangerous thought to Kadife’s dad because of the Muslim cultural tradition for women to be carefully covered in public. The tradition varies from country to country and between Muslim communities. Some require a headscarf while other more conservative places like Saudi Arabia insist upon covering from head to two.
In Kars the issue had become almost the only thing anyone talked about because of the “head-scarf girls” also known as the “suicide girls.” Girls were committing suicide in Kars. People were blaming the suicides on the stress about head scarves. The issue is a very emotionally charged issue because it is a personal item that is tied fast to religious beliefs. Because of that everyone feels that they have the correct belief and they have a right to tell the girls the correct way to behave. The wearing a head scarf is a religious issue and a political issue, too.
Here is an example from the first part of the book that sets the stage for our understanding of the views for and against the wearing of headscarves. By a new law women were not allowed to wear head-scarves in educational institutions. A man with a gun comes up to the school principal who is sitting a café drinking tea and accuses him of being an infidel. .He continues, “Give me just one reason why your conscience doesn’t bother you when you order covered women to uncover themselves, and I swear I won’t shoot you.
“When a woman takes off her head scarf, she occupies a more comfortable place in society and gets more respect” (the school principal answers).
“That might be what that film star daughter of yours thinks, but the opposite is true. Head scarves protect women from harassment, rape, and degradation. It’s the headscarf that gives women respect and a comfortable place in society” (Ramuk 45),
Kadife is torn between what is right for society and what is right for herself. Throughout the book, interwoven with the other plot narratives, Kadife and her friends and family explore the philosophical and political issues of wearing a head scarf. She explained how all their lives girls had been told in “religious instruction they received (to keep their heads covered) at their state education. (the girls suddenly) are told the scarves want you to take your head scarves off” (Ramuk 113). At one point she admits, “As for me one day I put a head scarf on for political statement. I just did it for a laugh but it was also frightening” (Ramuk, 113). Kadife is now considering making another political statement by taking the head scarf off.
“Hema and Kaushik” Unaccustomed Earth
Hema is very young when we meet her in Unaccustomed Earth. She has moved with her parents from Calcutta to Massachusetts. We are introduced to her as her mother is dressing her for a party. She is being dressed in traditional Indian pajamas. What bothers Hema the most is that
“The inseam of the pajamas was stamped with purple letters within a circle, the seal of the textile company. I remember fretting about this fact, wanting to wear something else, but my mother assured me that the seal would come out in the wash, adding that, because of the length of the kurta, no one would notice it anyway” (Lahiri 225).
The pajamas are much different than something she would wear to a party in America. Of all differences such as the extra yards of fabric, the tapering inseam and a vest with pearls she was worried about the trademark showing. This is the American side of Hema already expressing a worry over older traditions that might ‘show.’
There is another story in the short novel about Hema and Kaushik and how Hema ended up wearing his hand-me-down clothes. Hema and Kaushik had met when Kaushik’s family was staying in her family’s home for awhile. He was given her bedroom for the stay. There was enough of a difference in age that Kaushik didn’t really have much to do with the younger Hema but she had a secret crush on him.
She didn’t have the same warm feeling though when a few years later she was having to wear his hand-me-downs to school. She especially hated wearing his dark boy’s coat when the rest of the girls were wearing their puffy pink stylish coats to school. Her identity was projected by the clothes she wore and she wanted to be an American girl like the other American girls.
Girls of Riyahd
In the Girls of Riyadh characters are in their twenties and busy with meeting the opposite sex, dating and (hopefully) getting married. The novel opens when a blogger starts to blog about her friends over the Internet. The traditional culture of Saudi Arabia and the contemporary culture of London are compared and contrasted.
When Faisal and Sadeem happen to meet on the plane home they discuss changing clothes or not before landing at the airport. Faisal dressed in his thoba1 before he got on the airplane. Sadeem though waited until the destination of Saudi Arabia was near. Then she changed into her abaya2 in the airplane bathroom.
But Faisal explained to her,
“I don’t like to change my clothes on the airplane. Makes me feel like I’m schizoid. As if I’m Dr. Jekyll about to change into Mr. Hyde” (Alsanea 44).
Both Faisal and Sadeem are modern young people who follow the trends and judge their peers on whether they are attractive and sexy like so many other place in the world but when they are in Saudi Arabia the tradition about clothes is very strictly enforced. Girls especially when they are in public must be covered. Abaya’s come in a variety of styles, fabrics and colors so that women can have every day abayas and evening wear abayas.
When young people are going to meet in someone’s home they dress as if they are going out in London but they cover themselves from the door of their house to their friend’s door. When in their friend’s house they take off the abayas. So the identity of a person once again is very wrapped in their clothes. There is a struggle between the traditions of the culture and the contemporary lives of the young people.
1 thobe “a garment” a long tunic-like a robe traditionally worn by men
2 abaya “a cloak” a pullover robe or dress for ladies that may be plain for praying, every day or fancy and elegant
Sadeem’s behavior at Gamrah’s wedding is very strange but it turns out she is trying to avoid having her photograph taken. She is Gamrah’s “maid of honor.” She looks very gorgeous and is wearing a beautiful dress but she is always hiding which is hard to do since she is always with the bride who is the center of attention at the wedding.
The author explains, “Sadeem followed her (Gamrah’s) progress with utter concentration, ducking to avoid appearing in any of the photos. One never knows who might be looking at the photos from the bride’s or groom’s side, and like any decent girl, Sadeem wouldn’t want strange men to see her in an exposing evening dress and full makeup” (Alsanea 20).
Gamreh grew up in a very traditional and conservative Saudi family. Before she was married she had only seen her fiancé once. She was not even allowed to talk to him on the telephone before the marriage contract was signed (Alsanea 73. The contrast between Saddeem and Gamreh at the wedding is very noticeable.
Of all the characters in the Girls of Riyadh it is Michelle who seems to experience the greatest battle with tradition; especially when she has to move back to Saudi Arabia after living in the USA. The author describes it this way.
“Michelle had never been able to explain to any of her friends, not even her close girlfriends, the sense of loss she had felt when she had to move back to Saudi Arabia from America. Even though her girlfriends understood how intensely she loathed Saudi society and its severe traditions, and even though they knew how much she mocked the restrictions that the society placed on young women, the battle of two civilizations that raged within her was so contradictory and complex that only someone with an acute intelligence and an enlightened, open-minded thinking could truly comprehend it” (Alsanea 116).
The paragraph above describes also the conflicts Hema felt in her struggles as a first generation Indian from Calcutta living in America and how Kadife struggled. Kadife’s struggles were different from Michelle’s and Hema’s because she had not place to remember or to go to. Her struggles were clearly about the traditional culture’s way of doing something and the secular culture’s way of doing something. Yet her struggle was also symbolized by an item of clothing; for her it was her headscarf.
After living an untraditional life and struggling against Indian tradition, Hema ends up in a traditional marriage. Kadife ends up being true to herself. Michelle ends up in Dubai, a modern Arabic city. Sadeem marries a man who loves her, after accepting his proposal in an old-fashioned and romantic way. The decision of who she would marry was taken by her and not in the traditional way of an arranged marriage.
Were they submissive to tradition as was Garmah, but not Sadeem? Were they tied to tradition as Hema was by her great urges to keep away from it?
And finally the intellectual, Kadife, who had no interest in being “representative for the feminists” but wanted to make the Europeans show respect for a change. She wanted women to have a choice about wearing a head scarf without having to put up with the ridicule of foreigners nor the taunts of the traditionalists (Ramuk 236).
The title of Chapter 43 of Snow is “The Main Reason Women Commit Suicide is to Save their Pride” (Ramuk 391). A person’s identity is shown to the outside world by clothing and how and when they wear certain items. To be proud of one’s identity a person needs to be able to choose how they present themselves to the outside world.
Clothes do have a huge part to play in understanding different cultures.
Alsanea, Rajaa. Girls of Riyahd. Trans. Rajaa Alsanea & Marilyn Booth. Penguin Press. NY. 2007. Print.
Ehrlich, E., Flexner, S.B. Carruth, G. & Hawkins, J.M. 1987. Oxford American Dictionary. Oxford University Press. NY. Print.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Unaccustomed Earth. Part II. Hema and Kaushik. Random House-Knopf. NY/Toronto. 2008. Print.
Ramuk, Orhan. Snow. Translated by Maureen Freely. Vintage Int.-Random House. 2005. Print.