Strong in the Broken: Sick While Stuck

Today’s Strong in the Broken guest post is by Beth Watkins, about sickness, trauma, refugees, and healing.

On our first weekend in Cairo, almost two years ago, it happened the first time. A sudden, extremely painful episode that doubled me over on the floor, unable to speak, vomiting from the pain.

We went to several doctors, had several tests done, and they all told me the tests were clear. Every couple of weeks, it would happen again, and leave me sore and tired for days. More doctors, more tests, more of everyone telling me I was fine.

We were working at an organization assisting refugees out of the church. It was a stressful, demanding job, managing a multi-cultural team and overseeing job training and placement services, and the adult education program. Working with vulnerable people and with people from multiple countries and cultures is challenging.

The season in life prior had been no bowl of cherries, either. In the previous four years overseas I’d been robbed, had a house fire, was interrogated in a second language and eventually expelled from my first desert home. I had to be evacuated from a warzone the same year, returned, got married, travelled constantly for nine months, and then…Cairo. The stress and trauma of the last few years finally caught up.

After a year of the pain attacks, my British husband and I decided we had to move back to the US. So we began the long, expensive, stressful, and uncertain process of applying for his permanent American residency.

From there, it was one month, one week, one day at a time.

I was exhausted all the time, stressed all the time, and in pain part of the time. I was anxious for our refugee friends, worried about my weakening body, and terrified we’d be stuck in Egypt longer than planned. I’d cry myself to sleep at night over negative changes at the organization for our refugee coworkers, while not knowing if I was doing lasting damage to myself by just being there.

I wanted to stay and fight for my vulnerable friends. And I wanted desperately to leave and not feel stuck anymore in a place where I was feeling weaker and more damaged by the day.

I was only working three days a week, and sometimes barely managing that. But in those three days a week, I was able to do more than I ever thought possible. I fought for our refugee coworkers to have equal rights. I quadrupled enrollment in our adult education program. I created new jobs, and rewrote contracts for those jobs to protect the rights of refugee workers. I worked with other organizations in the city to coordinate services, and held new workshops for HIV+ women. In a country where relationship is everything, as much as I could I sat with people, asked about their families, shared my snacks, helped in menial tasks that weren’t mine to do, and tried to make everyone feel important.

Somehow, in my two weakest years overseas, working the least hours in a week in any other season in my life, I managed to contribute more and grow more than during any other time in my life.

It took eleven months of bureaucracy and endless mountains of paperwork to get the green card. We left Cairo for good six days after we had it in hand.

We are still searching for answers, and my health still has a long way to go to get better. The anxiety has decreased. The pain is lessening. For the first time in almost two years I feel as though I’m getting stronger, and not weaker. But I have been told by doctors and counselors that I won’t recover my capacity for at least a year, and maybe never. I am still sick, but no longer stuck. And I am grateful.

All the while, in the back of my mind, are the refugee friends we left – some of them struggling with worse illness then mine – who have no outs or options. While I am back in my home country, they are in a country without welcome.

And I’m sick over the fact that they are still stuck.

Beth Watkins has spent the last 6 years working in North and Sub-Saharan Africa with street children, refugees, and other vulnerable populations, and is currently settling back in the US with her British immigrant husband. She blogs about living toward God’s kingdom and finding our neighbors at, where you can also download a copy of her free e-book, “For the Moments I Feel Faint: Reflections on Fear & Showing Up.”

Strong in the Broken: Female in Saudi Arabia

Today’s Strong in the Broken essay is by Ersatz Expat who lives in Saudi Arabia. The essay is a bit longer than I usually post but her experiences are unique and eye-opening, so I decided to publish the piece in full, in one post, rather than breaking it up.

A little over two years ago, over supper in our house in Ipoh, Malaysia, my husband, Mr EE told me he had been approached by a school in Jeddah looking for a new headmaster. My response was immediate visceral: ‘over my dead body’.  A bit of research ameliorated my position and a few months later we moved.  Family and friends were wary, concern for me barely hidden behind a façade of congratulations.  There is no getting away from it, Saudi Arabia has a reputation for being a hellish place for women.  Unable to drive, unable to go anywhere without the consent of her guardian, hidden, controlled, second class.  Why would I, a confident, outspoken, opinionated woman submit myself to that?

A year on and I can say that my experiences of being female in Saudi are nothing like I expected or how the media portrayed. But, time has also shown me that I am extraordinarily privileged in my freedoms and my experiences are not the same as those of others.

Everyone gets something different from a posting, even within the same family. Jobs, friends, and colleagues see to that, but Mr EE and I have had broadly similar experiences in every country we have lived in, until now.  His position, nationality and gender mean there is an inherent level of respect for his opinion and an open ear not automatically there for me, although it is given freely and generously when earned. 

Over the last year there has been much talk of Brexit and elections in key western nations. His views were actively solicited while mine were not, at least at first.  When people (ie men) see that I am informed, interested and knowledgeable, they respect my opinions and contributions but I have to prove myself in a way Mr EE does not.  My parents, my schooling, my whole life experience have given me the innate belief that my opinion matters and  built the confidence to articulate it.  I see, however, how easy it would be for women who do not have such benefits or whose cultural heritage and experience denies them the ability to develop those skills could be sidelined without overt malice, but the result of centuries of ingrained cultural expectations.

In the same way that the experience of doing business with Arab men is closed to me, there is a side of life Mr EE will never see: women’s spaces. I took a course at a local women’s university.  Demure, black-clad Saudi and Middle Eastern expat women walked in and, once past the screens, transformed into the same lively, fashionable women on campus at any university.  With the windows obscured, they were free to behave as they wished.  I asked one woman why everyone stayed until closing time every day and did not go home after lectures. ‘We are free here,’ she said.  Some worked, some socialized over coffee and others danced (more seductively than Beyoncé) to Western and Arab music.  Women love to party and dress to impress, the difference is that it is for other women not for men.

They were fascinated by my family life, so different from their own and I spent a lot of time answering questions.  Many told me they live almost parallel lives to the men they married.  One moved in with her mother-in-law post marriage and her mother-in-law knew her better than thehusband, as he was rarely with her.  She wept bitter tears when her mother-in-law died, her friend of 7 years leaving her in a house with a stranger.  One asked if I loved my husband when I married him and one told me she wished she had been able to delay her children, the way we had, to have time to get to know her husband and settle into married life.  I was often asked how I felt when my husband ‘told me’ we were moving to Saudi and they were incredulous when I said he never told me to do anything, that we discussed and agreed on big decisions and, had I said no, we would not have come.

I have freedoms many of those women will never have. With the exception of driving, I am as free in Jeddah as I would be in London or the Hague, yes there are areas I would not go alone but those are everywhere.  If I want to get on a plane and go to Dubai or Khobar or anywhere, I can. I can work, I can study.  Not all women are so lucky, a woman’s mahram or guardian, typically a father, husband or brother can control her every move, a woman’s freedom depends on her mahram’s enlightenment.  Some are as free as I am, others are heavily controlled, being told when they may or may not leave the home, for how long and where they may go.  It is this guardianship system, more than any of the other restrictions on women, that annoys my local friends.  Lawyers, teachers, business managers, 18 year old college students, they are all subject to this system which many have told me they find insulting and infantilising.  There have been recent changes in the law however, and there are hopes the guardianship system is coming to an end, a relic of an earlier age when women did not work and were rarely seen.

Are the clothing laws oppressive?  From a personal point of view I don’t mind my abaya, although it is restrictive.  Trailing hems trip people up and get caught in escalators (I recently helped rescue a women caught in one at Riyadh airport), sleeves knock over drinks and the popper buttons open at the most annoying moments.  It is almost impossible to run or exercise in public and I get undressed to go out, changing from the proper clothes I wear in the compound into leggings and a strappy top to keep cool under the abaya.  For me and women like me these are minor annoyances.  What I really mind is the compulsion, that I am not trusted to make appropriate clothing choices.  Even more than that, I mind, on behalf of Mr EE, our son and all the kind, wonderful men I know and trust, the implication that all men objectify women and that it is our responsibility to prevent them. 

There are cultural sensitivities at play, women wearing abayas here is as normal as men wearing thobes and the fact that many of my friends do not cover as extensively when they are abroad shows they have personal choice.  I know Western female converts who have taken a positive and personal decision to cover in full and some who simply wear a hijab.  I know Middle Eastern expats who cover only when they pray and wear the most daring of abayas and others who told me they never covered their hair in their father’s house but were made to after marriage.  Clothing is complex and nuanced, different in every circumstance but, naturally, the law here does make it easier for women to be forced to dress in a particular way.

Saudi is changing. My friends tell me women today have more freedoms than they had for decades.  The mutawa, or religious police has had its activities curtailed, there are moves to end the guardianship system and there are campaigns (supported by many men) to allow women to drive.  Saudi universities cater to more women than men, the number of career options open to women is increasing by the year.  The Saudi men I know are not misogynistic bullies and the women are no shrinking violets. But, but but, it remains a segregated and divided society, even young children, unless they go to one of the consular schools, are educated separately with more study and leisure options for boys than girls. 

When we are out by ourselves Mr EE may not enjoy the friendly and welcoming atmosphere of the family section of a restaurant while I may not join the men’s section.  There is a palpable sense of ‘two steps forward one and a half steps back, for example recent proposals for the establishment of sports colleges for women failed to pass the consultative council.  When change happens, it will happen (as it should) Saudi-style, slowly, uniquely but hopefully sustainably. 

A no longer 30 something perpetual expat I am Irish (but never lived there), was born in the Netherlands and am on country number 9 and posting 11 (or 12 or 13 I’ve lost count).  I lived in The Netherlands (many times) Norway, the UK (more than once), Nigeria, Turkey and Venezuela with my parents.  I thought I had settled in the UK with my British husband, two children and a dog but a few years ago we decided to have an adventure and became expats again.  In that time we have lived in Kazakhstan, various locations in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, somehow managing to acquire a second dog, a third child and a cat along the way.  I blog about muddling through daily life as an expat in general and our postings in particular at

I can be reached at

*image via Flickr

Third Culture Kids Series: Painting Pictures

Today I’m announcing a new guest post series and giving a call out for submissions.

It is something precious and dear to me, and something I am currently navigating my way through, and something I have so much to learn about.

The series will be on the wide-open topic of Third Culture Kids. The title is Painting Pictures, taken from Sara Grove’s song Painting Pictures of Egypt. The goal is to create and provide word (and image) pictures of the tapestry of experiences involved with being or loving a TCK. There are loads of quality resources available – blogs, books, websites, conferences, songs – and we’ll share those over the series as well.


by Graziella Leblanc, a Djibouti-based painter, interviewed for the Djibouti Post

There are all kinds of viewpoints

Being a TCK (young, teenage, college, adult)

Parenting a TCK

Married to a TCK

Friend/coworker/roommate of a TCK

Educating a TCK

Counseling a TCK

Child of a TCK

Grandparent of a TCK…


And all kinds of perspectives








And all kinds of experiences, from highly positive to devastatingly negative.


I want to hear and share all of it.

Next week I’ll tell you more about this painting above and why I chose it as the image for this series. The series officially starts in two weeks and you will not, will not, want to miss the opening post. I am beyond thrilled and honored that this particular writer has agreed to launch the series but I’m going to make you wait to find out who it is.

So, what do I need from you? I know there are a ton of people I don’t know but need to hear from. Sometimes the conversation on TCKs, both in real life and in blog spaces, seems dominated by Americans or by faith-based folks. I’ve heard from military kids and career kids that they have felt left out. I want to include all aspects. I also want to include a global perspective. A TCK is not just an American child raised elsewhere. Its an Indonesian child raised in Kuwait. A South African in China. Hopefully we’ll be able to hear from a wide variety.

Please email me or leave a comment if you are interested in contributing, if you know someone I should contact, if you have questions or topics you’d like to see covered, if you have resources…

painting2I am making a commitment to my own Third Culture Kids and to readers of Djibouti Jones to learn and listen and speak and pray with an extra-intentional focus over the course of this series, for however long it lasts. Will you join me?

Let’s Talk about Hijab: Am I Good Enough to Wear This?

Today’s guest post in the Let’s Talk about Hijab series is one I have been eagerly waiting for. Sarita Agerman and I are doing a little blog-swap. Last week I was at Hotchpotch Hijabi in Italy with I Don’t Live in a One-Word World and this week she is visiting Djibouti Jones. The way she approaches Islam on her blog is open, honest, deep, and ultimately, relatable. I find it fascinating that when she writes about being a newbie at mosque or about the hijab mirror test, though I have never prayed in a mosque or committed to wearing hijab on a daily basis, I can connect with her stories as they shed light on my own experiences. And this is what good writing and true living do. I also love the virtual friendship we are forming and the fact that when I told her my kids were going back to Kenya on Monday she said she would pray for me. This is what the Let’s Talk about Hijab series is after – not uniformity but community. Enjoy…

Outward Sign of an Inward Faith: Am I Good Enough to Wear This?

2 Sarah

Not all women choose to wear it and there are (as in everything) different interpretations of whether it’s obligatory or not, but in my case the hijab was something I choose to adopt pretty much straight away.  For me, it was part and parcel of the process of converting.  My relationship with the physical scarf was a useful gauge as to how I was progressing in my tentative spiritual journey towards Islam.

I had the occasions, like many other female converts, when I would watch Pearl Daisy or Nye Armstrong’s videos till late into the night. I’d squeal with excitement and then rush to the mirror to try the hijab out for myself. Of course, it would be wonky or fall off but that didn’t matter. I didn’t mind that I couldn’t pull off the architectural feat of keeping the scarf on my head because I was happy, excited and feeling open to the new emerging influence in my life.

The times when I looked into the mirror and disliked my hijabified reflection were, with hindsight, the times when I was feeling scared by the changes that were going on in my life. As I wrestled with the theological differences between two faiths, I saw this battle play itself out in front of the mirror on a smaller scale. I’d get tangled up in my scarf, get annoyed with it and then throw it to the ground in exasperation.

During one of my more enthusiastic phases, I ventured out wearing an experimental turban to the local garden centre in the sleepy English village where I lived. I pottered about the pots and petunias with my internal paranoia pendulum swinging between feeling confident and breezy to ‘aargh everyone’s staring at me.’ In reality though, I don’t think any of the passers-by were particularly shocked by my presence and were probably more concerned about which pebbles would suit their new rock garden. Yet despite the lack of drama, it was still a significant step for me. It made me realize that despite my occasional paranoia, I actually felt comfortable with people being able to identify me as a Muslim by the way I dressed.

This realization brought with it a strong sense of responsibility. I didn’t feel at the time that I had enough Islamic knowledge to wear an article of clothing so steeped in tradition and with such political and religious connotations thrust upon it by the media and society. I worried that I’d be asked questions about Islam which I won’t be able to answer.

Or perhaps even worse (in my mind), was the fear that someone would speak to me in Arabic and I’d have no idea what to say in return. There have been so many times when someone has said asalaamu alaykum to me in the street and I was so excited that all that came out was a weird ‘waaaaaaaaaaaaaa,’ as it was the only syllable I could remember of the expected response ‘wa alaykum salaam.’


Social awkwardness aside, I often felt inadequate wearing something which represented faith and modesty when I was still in a transitional period of discovering more about Islam and my own personal beliefs. I can understand why some Muslim women find the act of wearing hijab tough because it comes with the weight of representation. If you miss a prayer or two as I sometimes do, or find yourself daydreaming about lunch during Salah (the five daily prayers) then you begin to feel bad wearing something that for many people, whether rightly or wrongly, represents piety. If you think in that way then it’s easy to feel like a fraud when you fail to achieve the high standard which you expect of yourself and think others expect too.

Hijab shouldn’t be viewed as an accolade, like a medal for winning a race, rather it should be viewed in the same way as the number pinned to the chest of a long-distance runner. It says to the world that you’re participating in a spiritual journey which is still in progress and even though at times you might fail miserably, you’re going to keep going.

In this way, I see the hijab as way of acknowledging that I’m not perfect but that I aspire to the values which the hijab represents. It isn’t there to chastise me for my failings but to remind me and encourage me to carry on despite them. The important thing is to consider our intentions and to continue trying, despite all our weakness, to be a better person and improve our relationships with God and those around us.



Sarita is an English language teacher from the UK who currently lives in Bologna, Italy with her husband.  She converted to Islam two years ago and began to write a blog last year as a way of sharing her experiences as a new convert and newbie teacher in a foreign country. She has recently started studying the Arabic alphabet with the aim of one day mastering the tricky letter ﻉ.

You can also find Sarita on Twitter and Facebook.


Other posts in the series:

Let’s Talk about Hijab

Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab? by Anita Dualeh

Hijab: Definitions

Hijab: the Universal Struggle by Pari Ali

Asking the Right Questions by Afia R. Fitriati

Through the Eyes of Children by J.R. Goodeau

Rethinking the Veil by Marilyn Gardner

The Thousand Stories of Hijab, by Chaltu Berentu, a video via The Poet Nation

Let’s Talk about Hijab: Links 

Let’s Talk about Hijab: Rethinking the Veil

Today’s post in the Let’s Talk about Hijab series is by Marilyn Gardner. While I’m thrilled about the fantastic posts in this series, the best part of it personally has been connecting with and meeting such unbelievably incredible women from all over the planet. I have only known Marilyn via email, Twitter, and blogs, and only for short time but she has challenged me to write better, think deeper, and love wider. Enjoy her post, Rethinking the Veil.


In May of last year Dr. Leila Ahmed, a well-known professor at the Harvard Divinity School published a book A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America. The idea for the book was born one evening in the late 1990’s when Dr. Ahmed was walking with a friend in her Cambridge neighborhood. As they passed by a park, they noticed a group of women, all in hijab.

Dr. Ahmed was raised in Egypt during the fifties and sixties. At this time in Egypt, the veil was rarely seen – not only in Egypt, but also in other Muslim-majority countries. That particular evening, she was shocked and disturbed to see the hijab, symbolic to her of patriarchy and oppression, fully alive; revived and walking in her neighborhood. More shocking was to see the hijab worn in a country that allowed freedom of expression in both speech and dress.

As a Muslim feminist she set out to study this phenomenon and the result is a thick volume published by Yale University Press.

Her findings should be a lesson for all of us, particularly those with little understanding of the hijab– those who tend to box and stereotype the Muslim world in general and Muslim women in particular.

The interviews showed a variety of reasons why women choose to wear hijab. From “raising consciousness about sexist messages in our (American) society” to national pride to rejecting negative stereotypes, the reasons were well thought out and articulated.

The hijab was worn with both knowledge and pride.

photo by Pari Ali

photo by Pari Ali

Along with that, her research revealed some of the characteristics of a “living” religion like Islam – namely that they are ever-changing, never static, not easily put into a box. The hijab is just one example of this dynamic.

In Pakistan I grew up with Muslim women surrounding me and friendships were formed at early ages, some that continue to this day. I well remember when my childhood friends entered puberty and with that rite of passage, put on the burqa. Because of this history, I’ve often been put in a posture of defending those who wear hijab, or burqa, or other head coverings. And my defense rightly comes from knowing so many women who have chosen to wear the veil – not because they are forced or coerced, but for many of the reasons that Dr. Ahmed cites.

I am also humbly aware that my words and thoughts are inadequate to the complexity of the role these women play on the local and world stage.

But there is one thing I can say with surety: Muslim women are not monolithic. Just looking at the vocabulary that surrounds the veil is proof of the diversity present in the Muslim world. The image often conjured up of a fully veiled woman walking behind her husband is only occasionally correct.

As a non-Muslim, I hesitate to speak with too much authority. It seems arrogant to speak for women who have chosen to wear (or not wear) hijab. But too often those in the west criticize the veil without having met a Muslim, without ever interacting on a personal level and that I can speak to.

In the course of her research, Dr. Ahmed confronts her own assumptions and beliefs as a “progressive” Muslim. She says in an article from the Financial Times published in 2011 “My own assumptions and the very ground they stood on have been fundamentally challenged” This serves as a lesson for me, and I hope for those reading. Being willing to have our assumptions challenged is not easy, but it is critical, particularly in a world too often driven by stereotypes promoted by those with the loudest and most insistent voices.


Marilyn Gardner grew up in Pakistan and as an adult lived in Pakistan and Egypt for 10 years. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, fifteen minutes from the International Terminal at Logan Airport.  She loves God, her family, and her passport in that order. She met Dr. Ahmed while she was awaiting the release of her book. Find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries and on Twitter @marilyngard

Other posts in this series:

Let’s Talk about  Hijab

Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab? by Anita Dualeh

Hijab: Definitions

Hijab: the Universal Struggle by Pari Ali

Asking the Right Questions by Afia R. Fitriati

Through the Eyes of Children by J.R. Goodeau

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