I’d never been to the Middle East until I got off a plane last July to come and live here. It was late at night when our plane touched down, delivering us to our first overseas posting- a place so different to anything I had ever known before that I didn’t have any real sense of what my new life would look like. Dark outside, the harsh airport lighting left me feeling exposed as I made my way through passport control, trying not to trip on the abaya I had been lent for this first journey. It was meant for someone taller than me and only added to the sense that this place might not be a comfortable fit for a western woman who hadn’t travelled much beyond Europe.
All around us in the queue there were men and women in traditional dress, many of the women with their faces covered. I wondered if any of the uniformed officials were the mutawa I had heard so much about- the religious police who enforce standards of social behaviour. I tried to get my bearings by looking for the things people had told me about. In the shopping malls later that week, I saw the segregated queuing system at McDonalds and Starbucks that ensure men and women stand apart. On our first trip to a restaurant, I saw the screens being brought out to shield a family so that the women in their hijabs could eat without attracting attention. I got caught out on numerous occasion by the five calls a day to prayer, most notably during a supermarket shop. As I approached the check out with my trolley overladen with food and a hyper toddler, the shutters came down, forcing me to wait half an hour to pay whilst the staff left to pray, all the time my milk and yoghurts warming, in time with my toddler’s temper.
If anyone had said to me during my first month here that this was a place of change, it wouldn’t have matched the opinions I was rapidly forming. Neither was it the impression of some of my friends when we were preparing to move here. Some expressed concern about us moving to a place with such a different way of life. Although I sensed this was supposed to be the next step in our journey, we shared their concerns. But six months on, I can see that it is a place of change.
There are the changes (still limited) that were made last year to the rules of male guardianship. There was the decision to let women start driving from June. There are the mutawa, whom I have never seen. There are the cinemas, which were banned here for over 30 years and which are due to reopen in the spring, a decision marked by John Travolta’s visit to the capital last month. There was the decision last autumn to allow women to start attending sporting events in stadiums. Excited by the change, my family and I went to witness the first of these. As we made our way to our seats, I couldn’t work out what felt different. Generally frowned upon, music is rarely heard here. Then I realised what had changed- it was the voice of James Brown breaking the usual silence.
There are even changes to the abaya and the head scarf, plain black pieces of clothing designed to keep women covered. An edict from the king means non-Muslim women don’t have to wear the headscarf and at the airport, they don’t even need to wear the abaya. Social change is often reflected in fashion trends. I’m not sure the abaya has ever been seen as a fashion piece but it seems to be taking on that mantle in some spheres. It’s not uncommon now to see women wearing theirs in other colours and with ornate decorations. Last month I went to an abaya fashion show, where the mood of change was tangible as we were shown abayas with snoods edged in leopard print, Japanese-inspired designs and ones made from Iraqi and Afghani fabrics.
In trying to learn a little of this country’s history, I went on a tour of the old part of town and found myself in the fort, which is considered to be the kingdom’s birthplace. In 1902, it was stormed by a young emir, later to become King Abdul Aziz, who unified the Arabian Peninsula into one kingdom in 1930. I hadn’t fully appreciated how young this country is until that trip. It was formed by men on horseback with swords less than a century ago. The trip was another reminder of how much change this country has already seen. I know someone here with friends who were born in the desert. Now this kingdom’s babies are being born in its shiny, sophisticated hospitals.
A spearhead visibly buried in the fort’s entranceway is, reputedly, that of the young emir
I was challenged on that trip to think about change- mainly, how we judge it. It’s easy to point the finger, identify a need for change and criticise when it doesn’t happen immediately. I think it’s right to fight for change on serious issues and to put pressure on those who drag their heels. But we also need to acknowledge that change is a process.
This is something that is true in our lives as individuals too. Many of the prayers we say for ourselves and for others are, essentially, a plea for change. ‘Please help me to be more patient’, ‘please improve my relationships’, ‘please change the hearts of terrorists’. Often these are the prayers that God seems to take time to answer.
Psychologists in the 1960s believed it took 21 days to form a new habit and more recent research says it takes 66 days. Change, it seems, is hard. I have a friend who went through years of being healed spiritually and emotionally. She likened the process to peeling an onion, explaining how God gently pushed back one layer at a time, going at a pace that she could manage. Change certainly wasn’t instant. There was no immediate miracle. My friend may have preferred one but that was not how God worked the changes he brought about in her.
From what I have seen in my own life and others, God doesn’t just want to heal people’s symptoms, he wants to heal the causes of those symptoms. That’s usually more complex and time-consuming and it may require patience on our part. The same is true when we are hoping for change in others- in our partners or our children. One of our children was full of anger towards me this week and I disciplined them. But the next day, they explained why they had been angry- it was because of an incident the previous day that had left them feeling hurt and rejected. I hadn’t taken the time to peel back the layers. I had just dealt with the symptom- an outburst of ‘bad’ behaviour. But the cause was more complex and involved chats and prayer, which took more time than simply sending them to their room had done. I need reminding that lasting change is much more likely when I spend time looking at the root causes of any difficulties.
The desert has an uncanny way of flushing out our worst faults, certainly those of its new arrivals. I felt this keenly when we first got here. I was out of my comfort zone and all those coping mechanisms I’ve developed to give me a sense of control kicked in. My most frequent prayer became ‘Please change me.’ That’s definitely a long-term prayer!
When change doesn’t appear to take place, in ourselves or in others, it can be demoralising and disappointing, even if we acknowledge change may be incremental and slow. In his Narnia book, ‘Prince Caspian’, C.S.Lewis encourages us with the thought, ‘Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes but when you look back, everything is different.’ Change can be hard but God teaches us that he is in the business of transforming lives, sometimes miraculously and dramatically but more often, slowly and patiently, maybe so imperceptibly that it is only later we realise it has happened.
‘See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.’