Interview by Angelle Barbazon
Before we dive into everything else, would you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your background?
My name is Kathryn Karjawally Abdul-baki. My mother was from Old Hickory, Tennessee, near Nashville, and my father was from Jerusalem. My parents met and married in Washington D.C., where I was born. When I was 4, we moved to the Middle East for my father’s work. I grew up in Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Jerusalem, with trips to Honolulu to visit my American grandparents. I studied in Arab, British, and American schools in Kuwait and Lebanon, and I moved back to the United States with my husband after I got married at age 19 to continue my college education. Although we intended to return to Lebanon to live, the civil war there during the 1970s-80s prevented us from returning, so we stayed in the U.S. After living in New York and Bahrain for a number of years, we moved to Virginia. I have a journalism degree, but after briefly working in a newsroom I found my calling was in writing fiction, so I changed course and did my graduate studies in creative writing. I have written and published five novels, most of them set in the Middle East. This memoir, also set in the Middle East, is my first book of nonfiction.
Your mother was a Southern woman from the United States, and your father was a Muslim man from Jerusalem. What was it like growing up with parents who had two very different cultural backgrounds?
My mother grew up in a family where accomplishment was important – her father was a dentist and her mother had an advanced degree in English and taught at the University level. Her family was relatively worldly, but it was still a shock to her parents when she dropped out of a prestigious university (Vanderbilt and Northwestern). She met and married my father, who had come to the U.S. from Jerusalem to study, in 1951.
Although my father was Muslim, he was not conservative. My mother was agnostic, so there was no religious conflict in our home when I was growing up. We celebrated my mother’s American/Christian holiday traditions as well as my father’s Muslim/Arab holidays. My mother loved the Middle East for its casual lifestyle and family closeness, much as her Tennessee life had been growing up in Nashville and the surrounding towns. My father appreciated the United States as the land of opportunity. Their time in the Middle East in the 1950s and 60s was a time of great growth and change in the Middle East. Western values and lifestyles were influencing middle class Arabs and Iranians.
As a child I felt little of my parents’ cultural differences. But after my mother died when I was 11, my life veered into a much more Arab lifestyle, and my father became much more strict, but only in the sense that I didn’t have the freedom to go to school parties or to date, for instance, which was not part of Arab culture. That became somewhat of an issue for me as a teenager when I felt very different and separate from my American friends because of the Arab values I was expected to adhere to.
You were born in Washington D.C., but your family relocated to the Middle East when you were a child. What are some of your most vivid memories from that time?
We moved to Iran in 1956. As a child, I accepted the new culture and learned to speak Farsi. My father worked for the U.S. Department of Defense to set up English language schools for the Iranian military, so my parents were in Iran as expats. There was a small, thriving American community of military personnel and entrepreneurs in Tehran. Their lives were filled with parties, social obligations, and entertaining, and my earliest memories of Iran are of guests coming to our home and music and dancing in a large garden with a swimming pool, cherry trees, and rows of pansies and strawberries. There were winter trips to the mountain ski slopes, and I remember running with my parents to jump over bonfires set across the city during Norooz, the first day of spring, in the traditional Zoroastrian tradition. I started school in an American expat school in Tehran.
Were there moments of culture shock?
I didn’t experience culture shock until we moved to Kuwait in 1958, where my father started work with an American oil company. In order for me to learn Arabic, since we only spoke English at home and my mother knew no Arabic, my mother enrolled me in an Arabic girls’ school in a fishing village near our expatriate American compound. I was the only non-Arabic-speaking child in the school of Kuwaiti and other Arab girls. At first I had no way to communicate and was very unhappy, but my mother insisted I continue to attend that school, so I learned Arabic quickly. The school’s curriculum included reciting Islamic prayers each morning and singing the Kuwaiti national anthem. Most of my Kuwaiti classmates’ mothers dressed in traditional Arab abayas, long black cloaks draping their heads and bodies, and many wore the black or gold face masks at that time, so they looked completely different from my mother who wore Western clothing and did not cover herself. As a child, I floated back and forth between the two cultures each day – the one in my American-style compound and other in the traditional Kuwaiti lifestyle of the village – and felt at home in both.
How did you navigate the cultural mores and values as a bi-cultural kid growing up in the Middle East?
As a kid, I studied both Arab history and culture in my Arabic school as well as American and European history and culture in my American correspondence curriculum with my expat American friends in our compound. I felt more American, because of my mother’s influence and because our household was very liberal. The Arabic/Islamic mores of the Middle East were secondary to our life, and there wasn’t much I was not allowed to do as a child.
This changed only after my mother died and my father was left to raise me on his own, and reverted to his more conservative upbringing. As a pre-teen and teenager, my liberty was much more curtailed by rules of what I was (or was not) allowed to do as a young Arab girl from a respectable family. That became an issue for me as a teenager once I quit my Arab school and wanted to do more of what my American and British friends were doing socially. I was “different” according to my father, since he regarded me as an Arab, and I was not allowed to participate in parties at school. That’s when my life as a bi-cultural child started to conflict with my earlier American upbringing.
Did you realize when you were a kid that your family’s dynamic was somewhat unique compared to other families?
I had more freedom than some of my Arab cousins in Jerusalem because of my American lifestyle in our expat compound in Kuwait. None of my American friends in our residential compound spoke any Arabic, and only one attended my Arabic girls school for a short period. So, I was aware of having both lifestyles inside me and having to adhere to both, depending on where I was at any given time. It was often lonely because I felt “different” from both my Arab and American friends since I was not totally either. It often made me feel isolated and alone.
How do you explore the concept of coexistence in your book?
I have very tolerant families, both American and Arab, so I tried to show how everyone got along and respected each other’s backgrounds, although few on either side of my family had done any international travel. My Arab family always accepted and respected my mother’s American heritage. My Arab aunts and uncles knew that I was different because of my American mother and accepted that. My American extended family, while less exposed to the Arab way of life, also accepted my Arab heritage. Occasionally I saw that the two cultures had different ideas of what values to instill in us children, but nobody ever made an issue of the fact that I had to straddle both cultures, and they good-naturedly acknowledged the differences I held within myself. In my memoir I try to show the tolerance on both sides that allowed me to feel comfortable in both cultures.
What are some common (but inaccurate) stereotypes of Arab women? How do you dispel those stereotypes? How do you navigate people who are unwilling to hear your efforts to dispel these stereotypes?
The Arab world is large and varied culturally so Arab women come from very different backgrounds. A woman from Saudi Arabia or Yemen or the Arab Emirates, might have a different historical background and reference than a woman from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon or Palestine. There are more liberal Arab societies and more conservative ones, and even within one society there are different values depending on one’s education, social class, etc. But one concept often prevalent in the West is that Arab women are downtrodden and weak, or powerless. This is not true. Arab women are extremely strong and resilient and whether in the home or in employment have a good deal to say and decisions to make. Even the homemakers among my aunts and my father’s cousins were in charge of large households and many held jobs. While none of the older Arab women I grew up with “dated” in the American sense, or had powerful jobs outside the home, I saw the women as powerful and very nurturing of all the extended family. Most of the women of my generation worked as well as took care of homes.
When I first came to this country (the United States) after growing up in the Middle East I was often asked, “How was it growing up with all that oppression of women?” I was surprised because I’d never actually seen women in my family being oppressed, although I was aware some other women were. Especially women of less financial means or from conservative villages. But I never felt I was prohibited from following a career path or anything else I wanted to do. I grew up in Beirut and Kuwait in the late ‘50s, ‘60s, and early 70s where we wore what we wanted, within limits. In Beirut, miniskirts on the streets or bikinis on the beach was perfectly fine. In Kuwait, one had to be modest in public – no shorts for women in the streets – but within our expat compound women could mostly dress any way they pleased.
That said, there also is much need to expand women’s rights across the Middle East, as in most societies. Work is being done to expand punishment for crimes against women and there are great efforts and legislation being expanded to end child-marriage, often still prevalent in some segments of societies, or honor killing, when a female in the family is killed for sexual transgressions. Much more needs to be done and it can’t come soon enough.
You experienced grief at a very young age, first with the death of your brother after an experimental heart surgery and then with the death of your mother from cancer. Can you discuss how your family — especially the women — supported you during those times of loss and trauma? How can we learn from their approach?
You never expect such sad things to happen to your family, but they do. My brother died unexpectedly at the age of 2 when I was 9. Then my mother developed cancer. My mother had to come to the United States for treatment when I was 10 which left me alone with my father at home in Kuwait for much of the time.
We had a housekeeper from the Mount of Olives who was like a second mother to me. Also, my father’s sisters in Jerusalem were very supportive, and my father’s older unmarried sister came to Kuwait and stayed with us for months each year, and became another mother to me. All of my father’s sisters and female cousins in Jerusalem became surrogate mothers. All of them had adored my American mother and respected the fact that I’d been brought up differently than they or their children had, and so nobody ever tried to change me or make me more Arab than I was.
My American grandmother living in Honolulu wrote to me constantly and sent me books and records and tape recordings (no internet in those days) of her talking to me, so she was a constant presence in my life. She still regarded me as “American,” and had a more difficult time watching me become a teenager and adapting more “Arab” habits, such as being slightly more modest or demure than she would have expected. I still wore shorts and had an American outlook, but I wasn’t allowed to date, for instance, and she worried that my father’s more conservative upbringing would hinder my personal growth. But all of my female relatives on both sides of my family stepped in as surrogate mothers, and I owe a lot to their love and care. In addition, when my father eventually remarried, his Arab wife was a kind and loving step-mother and her mother and four sisters became big influences in my life. Her sisters were professionals – lawyers, painters, photographers –so I grew up with even more Arab female role models to emulate.
Your book opens and closes with memories of dancing. How has dance played a role throughout your life? Where did that passion come from?
Dancing and music was an intrinsic part of my family life ever since I can remember. My father was a good dancer and had taken ballroom dance lessons in college and he and my mother held frequent dance parties in our home in Tehran and later in Kuwait. Everyone danced at parties it seemed to me, both the Latin American dances of tango and cha-cha and samba, or Arabic dances such as Lebanese line-dancing called dabke, or belly dancing. I thought every family danced because my parents did. My father particularly liked Harry Belafonte’s island tunes and I grew up with Belafonte being played regularly on our stereo. My father’s love of dance continued even after my mother died, and our family dance parties with friends and extended family became a solace to both of us during that sad time. My father would light up whenever he danced, so I feel he passed that on to me. I often accompanied him as a preteen and teenager to adult dance parties in our expat community in Kuwait. Dancing was a way of life for me, although I had only sporadic formal dance lessons as a child. As an adult I took up dancing again and began to teach Latin social dancing and Argentine tango. Men who dance like my father still feel wonderful to dance with and bring back all my joyful childhood memories.
How has the Middle East changed since your upbringing?
The Middle East was a peaceful and happy place when I was growing up in Kuwait, Iran, Jerusalem and Lebanon. We would read about the Vietnam war and other conflicts and feel lucky it didn’t touch us.
On my trips to Hawaii as a child to visit my grandparents, I often attended the local public school for a month or so because my Kuwait schools didn’t start until after the hottest months were over. In the early 60s, children in American public schools were trained to take cover in case of a nuclear attack. This seemed very odd to me. I felt relieved that in my Arab home and schools we never had to fear such total destruction.
The Six Day War in 1967 when I was 15 changed my Jerusalem family’s life forever. East Jerusalem became part of Israel rather than Jordan and many of my Arab cousins left for work and opportunities elsewhere. There have been major wars in Kuwait, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq since I left which have caused a major brain drain in the region. Yet, the Middle East remains very dear to me and I visit whenever I can.