This is the English version of an interview by Umm Latifa that I helped edit. She also has it in the Polish language on her other blog, Arabia Saudjska. I thank her and Umm Wanayyan for letting me re-post it here on FHWS.
Umm Wanayyan – American Bedouin, a mom of 14 children!
By Umm Latifa
5 April 2011
Umm Wanayyan is an American woman married to a Saudi. She calls herself an “American Bedouin” as she literally lives with her husband and 14 children in the desert! This is what she says about her life, marriage and motherhood in the Kingdom!
Umm Latifa: How long have you been living in Saudi Arabia? When, where and how did you meet your Saudi husband?
Umm Wanayyan: Assalam alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh. I have been living here in K.S.A for 26 years. I came in February of 1985 with my infant son, Wanayyan. He was 10 months old and had just learned to walk. It was quite an adventure (I hate flying)!
I met my husband when I was 13. We had a BBQ on the 4th of July and invited a family friend to join us. He asked if he could bring along a cousin of his who was visiting from California. My mom said, “Sure! The more the merrier”! I was a kid and didn’t pay any attention to them but my man insists that’s the day he knew he’d met his wife :-D. He came around whenever he was in town and when I was 15, he asked if maybe I’d marry him. I agreed so he asked my mom. She agreed so he asked my stepdad, who got drunk.
Umm Latifa: How long did you know each other before getting married? How old were you when you met and got married? Was it easy to get a marriage permit from the Saudi Ministry of Interior back then and was it required at all?
Umm Wanayyan: I turned 16 on December 21st, 1981 and we married a month later, on January 17th. There was no permit for marriage because my husband was in the military at the time and it was illegal to marry foreigners. Later, when he applied for my visa, he had to lie and say that he wasn’t aware of the law when he married me so they wouldn’t throw him in jail :-D! Instead, he had the choice between his wife and son or his job. He never liked that job, anyway. It still took 3 years to get my visa.
Umm Latifa: You converted to Islam. A lot of people assume that a Western woman converts because of, or for, her Muslim husband. How was it with you, did your husband have any impact on how your beliefs changed?
Umm Wanayyan: I was raised by my stepfather who is a Roman Catholic. He tried to raise us kids to be Catholic as well, but I never could grasp the idea of the trinity so I was not a good Catholic. I slept in church every Sunday! To me, Jesus (alayhi assalam) [peace be with him – Umm Latifa] was just a great man, not God. When I was distressed, I asked God for relief, not Jesus. When I was thankful, it was to God, not Jesus (alayhi as-salam). This is the essence of Islam. From my earliest memory, I had Islamic faith so reverting was natural. It was like connecting the dots. While I’m sure there are some women who convert for their husbands rather than for the sake of Allah, the vast majority of converts are sincere. This is clear from their open and willing practice of Islam. My husband did encourage my decision but Allah is the One who guides to the straight path. La Illaha illallah [there is no god but God; Allah means ‘One God’ in Arabic – Umm Latifa]. When I was 14, I begged God to take me out of the unhappiness I suffered. He led my husband to me and me to Islam. Alhamdulillah (thank God – Umm Latifa) for that great blessing.
Umm Latifa: Mixed marriages are still discouraged in Saudi Arabia and most families, even nowadays, do not accept even a (foreign) Arab woman as a wife of their Saudi son. 26 years ago, what was the reaction of your husband’s family to the news he was bringing an American woman to the Kingdom?
Umm Wanayyan: When my husband first told his parents that he’d taken an American wife, his mother said, “What?! You’re bringing a KAFFIRA [nonbeliever – Umm Latifa] into the family?!” And he said, “Wait, she’s Muslim!” But in general, they accepted me. But then I arrived and they saw how completely inept I was at anything culturally Saudi, starting with the language :-D! I was so extremely shy that it took a full three years before I could hazard a simple sentence. I still can’t make a decent pot of Arabic coffee and now my American java is bad also :-D. My relationship with the in-laws went sour fast. The culprit? The language barrier. I can’t count the difficulties that transpired as a result of something I said or did that was misunderstood or misinterpreted. By the end of the 2nd year, I was the Wicked Witch of the West, Medusa, and Lucrecia Borgia all rolled into one :-D. On top of all my apparent character flaws, I also couldn’t cook worth a dime and my poor babies were severely malnourished because I refused to supplement breast milk with formula. After three years of my poor man running gunshot between them and me, he moved us out of Riyadh to his father’s house in the desert. Peace descended, of a sort. We have lived here for 23 years, more than half my life. I am officially an American Bedouin:-D! It ought to say so on my perpetually expired iqama, anyway. My mother-in-law passed on three years ago, Allah yarhamha [God be merciful to her – Umm Latifa], and I truly have no ill feelings toward her. And while her last few years here were spent in illness, I am certain she bore no ill toward me, either.
Umm Latifa: Were you really a terrible cook and your children malnourished?
Umm Wanayyan: 😀 A fact, I was a terrible cook! My kids were actually very healthy on my milk, but 20 years ago, it was a widely held belief that strictly breastfed babies were undernourished and must be given supplementary formula if they were to be fat and healthy. And the fatter the better!
Umm Latifa: How are the relations between you and the family of your husband now?
Umm Wanayyan: My relationship with the rest of his family is good now. It is not clear whether this is because they have truly accepted me for who I am or because we really don’t see them but once a year. I’m just glad all the agonies are over. I also know now, that a lot of the problems were my own fault. I was simply too shy and scared to try and blend in. Alhamdullilah for the end to hostilities!
Umm Latifa: What was the reaction of your family and friends when you decided a “Saudi man is going to be my husband and I am going to live with him in the Saudi Kingdom?”
Umm Wanayyan: Believe it or not, I didn’t get much response from anyone. My mom just said, “Well, if that’s what you want, dear.” My dad said zilch. And being the introvert that I am, I never had more than one good friend at a time and all that friend said was, “Wow!” One of my uncles did come over the day before my departure and asked me not to go. He said if I went there, I’d never make it back again. He was basically correct because I’ve only returned once and that was 13 years ago.
Umm Latifa: What do you think about life In Saudi Arabia? What was, maybe still is, the most difficult thing to accept and become accustomed to? What do you like or don’t like about life in Riyadh?
Umm Wanayyan: Saudi Arabia has been my home for 26 years now and I naturally think of IT when I say HOME. America just doesn’t feel like home to me. The one time I did go back for a visit, I was there for only ten days and was frantically calling the airlines in search of a seat on a return flight! It wasn’t always like that, though. For many years, I desperately needed to go home but wasn’t able to. Now, I have no desire to make the trip but I do feel obligated to go again to see my mom who is too ill to travel anymore. The thing I found most difficult to deal with was the Saudi custom of excessive hospitality. We are expected to insist to the point of force, that our unexpected, just dropped in off the edge of the earth without calling first (:-D) guests, stay for dinner whether they want to or not! I wasn’t raised that way. Where I came from, you invite them, unexpected or not, to stay if you can manage it. But if they say they are busy and can’t, you take them at their word and drop it. Here, it’s a kind of dance, really. It goes like this:
“You must stay for lunch.”
“No, I can’t, I have to head back soon”
“No, I insist you stay for lunch.”
“May Allah reward you a 1000 times over, but I just can’t.”
“Wallah [O God – Umm Latifa]! You’re not stepping out of my home until you’ve eaten from the rump of my biggest sheep!”
And on and on it goes till they give in and stay. The thing is you, the host(ess), are expected to go to all this trouble to show them that they’re welcome and valued. If you don’t, you aren’t a good host. And it’s a social suicide!
The things I love most about living here are that I can cover and no one looks at me at all. And no matter where you are, when the time for salat [prayer – Umm Latifa] comes, everything closes and there is a masjid [mosque – Umm Latifa] nearby to pray in.
I can honestly say that I don’t like living in Riyadh at all. I am a country gal at heart and prefer the fresh air of the desert. I dislike the noise, traffic, and the endless procession of hyper malls and fast food joints wherever you go, enticing you to squander what meager savings you’ve acquired :-D.
Umm Latifa: You are a stay at home mom of…fourteen children! It is quite an amazing number even for a Saudi family! How did you manage to go through so many pregnancies, deliveries and tons of diapers?
Umm Wanayyan: Believe it or not, 14 kids isn’t as hard as many think. Ask any mom who’s had at least five and she’ll tell you that each one is just as easy to add on as the last one. You just get used to that number of little people and work out a routine. Then when a new arrival comes, they just nurse and sleep. As they grow and become active, you fit them into that routine one step at a time. Before you know it, your home is bursting at the beams and you have arms and legs hanging out of every window and crevice! As for diapers, if I were reimbursed for every one we bought, I’d be rich! They were born all over the place and under varying circumstances. My first was born in the States but the others were born mostly in small, local hospitals. You wanna talk natural birth? Try this: go to the hospital (I use the term loosely :-D), climb into a bed and when you feel the baby crowning, yell for the doctor. If she’s on duty at the time, she might come just in time to catch the baby before he/she hits the linoleum 😀
Umm Latifa: When I was reading your interview on World Of Umm – UmmWanayyan on raising 14 children – I wondered how does a family trip to a park look like, how does a family meal look like…how, how, how? How are you managing to take care of a house and clothes after so many children?
Umm Wanayyan: We had a series of maids for about 12 years but the last one left four years ago, when I was pregnant with #14. I was overworked and wiped out, physically and mentally. The baby ended up as an emergency C-section. My body was just too worn out to do what it needed to do anymore. I haven’t pushed the maid issue for a number of reasons: If we aren’t permitted to aid another Muslim in committing sin, I can’t in good conscience, pay a girl to travel without a mahram to a foreign country to work in my testosterone dominated home where she would be a source of fitna [trial and temptation – Umm Latifa] to them and they to her. Instead, my kids all have jobs to do and, for the most part, they do them well enough, though grudgingly :-D. If you lower your standards enough, you can manage just fine.
Umm Latifa: You have four girls and ten boys. Do you raise your daughters in a different way than your sons? If yes, what are the differences? Do you think it is easier to raise kids in KSA or it would be easier in the USA? Have your children ever told you that they wish to live in your home country?
Umm Wanayyan: My kids have all been raised as typical Saudis. There wasn’t really anything from the American culture that is worth replacing the Saudi ways with. They go to government schools and colleges which is paramount to a good grasp for both written and spoken Arabic. There is no difference between boys and girls. They both graduate and move on to college. When they finish that, they will all work insha’Allah. Occasionally, someone will express the desire to live in the States instead of here. I would never consider moving to the U.S. There is simply too much fitna [trial and temptation – Umm Latifa] and violence to deal with to make it a pleasant experience.
Umm Latifa: Have your kids ever had problems at school with other children because their mother is American?
Umm Wanayyan: They have complained about being called offensive names by school kids and even by one or two poorly raised cousins. But they have developed fairly thick skins and a colorful repertoire of comebacks :-D. Also, the locals have come to learn, through experience, that taking on one of them means taking on ALL of them. This usually means no less than five boys at a time (yikes!).
Umm Latifa: You work at home. Would you agree that the term “unemployed’ is misused in regards to women who stay home to take care of their kids and house? It is hard work, especially in your case!
Umm Wanayyan: The term “unemployed” is correct in my case. I do not work outside the home a for monthly salary. That doesn’t mean I don’t work. My day begins with the adhan [call for the prayer – Umm Latifa] of fajr [first prayer of the day between 3.30-5 AM depending on which part of the year – Umm Latifa]. I wake up and my feet hit the floor running. After salat [prayer – Umm Latifa], I go down to the kitchen and start breakfast. This often means making bread dough. I made the mistake of making bread for my husband once and now its all he’ll eat for breakfast! After I’ve had my morning coffee, its safe to wake the kids :-D. Once they are all off to school and the Boss has gone out to his office, I can relax and quilt awhile. Then of course, there is the Mount Rushmore of laundry, beds to be made, garbage to be collected and tossed, vacuuming, mopping, dishes, etc. Once that’s done, its time to make lunch: two whole chickens, six cups of rice and LOTS of salad or soup. While I don’t earn a salary, I don’t need one. My husband and sons buy whatever I may need, alhamdulillah. I shop for groceries every two weeks. Armed with my man’s VISA, I head off to Shaqra, which is in the opposite direction of Riyadh, an hours drive away. They know me very well 😀 because I’m always seen with 3-4 carts of groceries and a 2.5K bill [2500 Saudi riyals – Umm Latifa]! After four years at the same store, I still get funny looks. On these trips, I also stop at other places as well, like the pharmacy and the bookstore or the 2 riyal store. Grocery day is always fun.
Umm Latifa: Life is not a “bed of roses” for a mom of 14 and moreover on self-imposed “exile” in Saudi Arabia. Any breakdowns?
Umm Wanayyan: Who hasn’t at some time or other, felt like they had bitten off more than they could chew? I am a very patient woman but I’ve had my share of near misses too. With so many people and things going on at the same time, its a wonder they haven’t shipped me off to a bait al-majanine [mental home – Umm Latifa] for shock therapy :-D! Seriously though, I have often, in the early years, felt like I was neither here nor there. Like I am sitting atop a fence with one leg hanging over each side, wondering which side to dismount from. For a brief time, I did suffer from a kind of identity crisis. I was always referred to as Umm Wanayyan or the wife of the emir. And to some, I was simply “the American woman”. I felt like I had gotten lost somewhere. Alhamdulillah, that didn’t last too long.
Umm Latifa: Do you ever regret coming to live in Saudi Arabia?
Umm Wanayyan: I did at first dearly regret coming here. The culture shock was something I hadn’t expected. But the shock wasn’t in coming from a liberal lifestyle to a conservative one, it was rather the other way around for me. I come from a close knit, very conservative Muslim community in Portland, Oregon. I assumed, wrongly, that Muslims here were the same as the ones I’d left behind. I was mistaken. They looked upon me like I was a fanatic. But now, no. Home is where the heart is (or your bed;-)).
Umm Latifa: I do believe there is an increasing trend of Saudis marrying foreigners. What advice would you give a foreign woman considering marriage to a Saudi? Would you, having such an “extensive baggage” of experience, recommend it?
Umm Wanayyan: My advice to any Muslim woman considering marriage to a Saudi is to first pay close attention to how he practices his religion. The prophet (salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam) [may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him – Umm Latifa], instructed us to marry a person based on their eman [faith – Umm Latifa] first and then for their wealth or lineage. If a righteous man asks for your hand, take him. They are very hard to find nowadays and well worth relocating for :-). A righteous husband will always fear Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) [glorified and exalted may He be – Umm Latifa] and help his wife to adjust easily. It really isn’t about where you live, but who you choose to live with.
Umm Latifa: Would you like to add anything?
Umm Wanayyan: On a footnote, some of you readers may have come to the conclusion that I made it through a hellish time all on the strength of my own grit but I didn’t. I had an incredible amount of help and support from a very dear, nearly lifelong friend, Umm Saad. Without her frequent visits and a steady supply of Keepsake Quilting catalogs, I would have gone bonkers years ago! Thank you, Umm Saad. May Allah reward you with Firdaus ameen [according to Islam, Paradise consists of different levels, the highest and the closest to Allah is called Firdaus – Umm Latifa] :-).
Photo Credit: Umm Wanayyan