Mad Hatter's Tea Party

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So, I'm doing my thing on Dressing for the Occasion this month, and I'm really sorry guys if it sounds a bit girly. It's an interesting subject in any language, but an intriguing one here, and I couldn't go for much longer without mentioning the strange ritual of dress and clothing in fashionable (and usually unfashionable) ways.

I'll start with a fairly straightforward example. Visiting friends.
Let's suppose I'm visiting a friend in her home, and it goes without saying that it would be a female friend unless I want to be shot at dawn or lose my head in Chop Chop Square for so much as even speaking to a man other than my Mahram, which is my HFBS (Husband, Father, Brother or Son).
So, supposing my friend Helen has asked me to pop round for a cuppa - well I just throw on my abaya over my jeans and T shirt and off I go. Once inside her house I take off my abaya, sit myself down in the comfy chair while she goes to put the kettle on, I make polite conversation with her husband and kids, pat the dog, have a nose at the family photos on the mantlepiece and be normal. That is of course, because this is a western household I am visiting. Believe me, if it's a Saudi home, there's nothing normal about it.

So next, let's say I've received an invitation to tea at Fatma's house. Being on my best behaviour, I telephone 2 days prior, to confirm that I will be attending 'tea'. The maid at the other end is totally baffled by my call, mutters something and hangs up (then I remember Saudi's never confirm anything). I can't help wondering how Fatma will cope when she doesn't know if 2 or 22 of her invitees will turn up.
Anyway, the invitation said 4pm, so I turn up at the ladies entrance (every Saudi home has one) at 4.05pm and wait ages for the door to be answered (ringing door bells are not a priority). A sleepy looking maid eventually opens it and shows me into a vast hallway which is over-furnished Louis 15th style, all gilt and curly legs, and which is so badly lit I almost break my neck on one of the many fringed rugs. None of the light bulbs can be more than 20 watt strength and I realise there is no natural light coming into the room to help me avoid crashing into furniture, or worse, breaking some valuable vase. Sleepy takes my abaya and scarf and shows me to a small ante room in which I find a row of 5 small handbasins in front of a huge mirror, illuminated in film star dressing-room style. I guess I'm supposed to wash my hands, so that done, I return to the dark hallway and hope Sleepy's still there to escort me to the next stage. She is there, and takes me into a large ornately furnished sitting room, and leaves. I'm alone, and look around me at this stately-home style room, one corner displaying an array of decorative velvet tassled cushions, in rich blues, purples and deep reds, arranged on the floor, Arab style. The rest of the room vastly overcrowded with furniture. No family photographs to look at here. Photographing any living thing is considered making a graven image, which is strictly against Islamic Law. The paintings on the wall are mostly landscape views or gaudy abstract things of grim colour.

Nobody else is here, not even the hostess, so I sit and wait. Sleepy brings me some juice, but it is the typical thick sweet juice the Arabs drink so I put it to one side. I can't even gaze out of the window, Saudi's paint over their windows, especially in the women's quarters. I'm hoping some other guests will appear soon as I go through the torment of wondering if I have misread the invitation and arrived several hours early, or was it tomorrow, has it been cancelled without me knowing (they do that a lot too). I breathe a sigh of relief when I hear voices and two other ladies enter the room, both westerners. Phew, someone to talk to. Straight away we slip easily and comfortably into conversation, thankful that we can forget all the formalities we'd have to go through with greeting Arab ladies. The kissing, the shaking hands, the God Willing's and Thanks be to God that we are here and were able to come, Praise be to God that we find each other in good health and all that, it goes on forever!! Our hostess, Fatma appears and greets us, looking like she's about to star in a 1950's glamour movie. Her hair is long and henna'ed dark red, and her lips are the same shade. I hardly recognise her. I have never seen her without her abaya or without her hair covered, and only a few times have I seen her unveiled. It is her voice more than anything which I recognise first, and then gradually the face becomes familiar. It is quite a shock for me to see her like this. She's wearing an exquisite sequinned dress, and I'm surprised she doesn't have to sit down sooner under the weight of all that jewellery clanking around. I'm seeing her in quite a different light, and she is amused by the look on my face, though she understands why.

Over the next hour or two (timing has a totally different meaning to the Arabs) about 15 other ladies turn up, a mixture of westerners and Arabs, some of them Saudi's, and once introduced we all sit and chat like any other group of ladies would. The tea arrives, along with 2 maids and a vast mound of food, all of it displayed on the most decorative fine china I have ever seen, with beatiful silverware.
We sit back, chatting and munching, while the Arab ladies make no pretence of staring at each other's clothing and jewellery. This is very important to them, it's their chance to inspect what their friends have, and a chance to out-do others. You see, even for popping round to your (saudi) friend's house for a cuppa, you dress for the occasion. And I mean DRESS. The fact is that they are normally totally hidden under all that voluminous black material, including covering the head and face, so that no flesh is visible. I have hea rd it said that a veiled woman would rather be stripped naked in public than have their veil removed. And I believe it. So on an occasion like this they must seize the opportunity to show off their wealth, wardrobe and jewellery which actually, in my way of thinking, turns it into something of a gaudy glitzy rocky horror show.

They dress up to the nines, in fact we would call it overdressing - the ornate clothes, the sequins and pearls, the sexy underwear on show, the jangling jewellery of which they have stacks - the coiffured hair, the heaps of make up, the nails, and the sequinned slippers. Talk about dripping diamonds. I swear these people wear every single item of jewellery they own, it's like going to an exhibition of The Crown Jewels and State Banquet Costumes of Royalty where everything's been put through the blender first. If I'd been in that room for the next 10 years I couldn't have counted all the sequins and diamond rings on display that afternoon. Of course, the westerners in comparison look very plain. I'm sure these women must think we haven't got two pennies to rub together. We tend to keep our glittery evening dresses for the May Ball or such.

But the other thing that fascinated me was how quickly the conversation inevitably turns to men, the male species, and anything to do with the male. I can only guess it's because they don't get to mix with any, other than their Mahram (or HFBS). And don't they love to get down to basics!!! You just wouldn't find western women talking in quite the same way. But then the intrigue isn't there for us, we have been free to talk, mix, socialise, work with males from outside the immediate family ever since we were born, without any restrictions whatsoever.

I have to say that being invited to afternoon tea in a Saudi home was an opportunity not to be missed. Not only because it is quite rare that a Saudi (female) would have anything to do with a Westerner, but also because it is something to be experienced.It's like going to a bad taste party at Buckingham Palace, I've never seen anything quite like it. It's crazy. It's Saudi.

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