Bowling in an Abaya: an American Teacher’s Memoir from Yemen

By Marisa G. Garcia

Outskirts Press, Denver, Colorado | 2016

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

I read travel books the way others watch The Game of Thrones, particularly those written by authors who have traveled to the Middle East. And, so, when I noticed a young woman sitting at the Greater Los Angeles Writers’ Society booth at the recent Los Angeles Times Book Festival at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles (a yearly event held every April) holding a book by this title, Bowling in an Abaya, I was drawn to her.

Ms. Garcia is a pretty Latina lady (her roots are Puerto Rican) with an open face and a lively spirit. Soon enough we fell into talking about the excessive use of khat, a narcotic that is chewed by both men and women in Yemen. I knew about this from another book I had read on the region. When I offered to review her book for this magazine, she handed me a copy.

Yemen is at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, bordered to the north by Saudi Arabia, the Red Sea to the west, the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea to the south, and Oman to the East. Most notable is that was the home of the Sabaeans; so, Queen of Sheba, who came bearing gifts to King Solomon in the 10th Century BC, came from Yemen. Its capital was Sana’a but now, since Sana’a has come since 2015 under rebel control, it has been moved to Aden.

Yemen is one of those Middle Eastern countries whose politics I find impossible to follow. It was a British protectorate after the Middle East was carved up following WWI until 1967, when it became a kleptocracy, “a government by those who seek chiefly status and personal gain at the expense of the governed.”

Yemen has been in a state of political turmoil since 2011, when its President Salah stepped down. It has affiliations with Al-Qaeda, particularly in the north. Recently, Saudi Arabia bombed area of the country but I don’t know why. I can’t even say whether Yemen is Sunni or Shiite, but I know it’s a country of religious extremism, not a particularly inviting place for a spirited young American woman such as Ms. Garcia.

After a decade working in advertising, Ms. Garcia transitioned into education. She realized the global appeal and travel opportunities for English teachers so she applied to teach overseas. In 2007 and was given an assignment in Yemen. She was situated in Aden, Yemen’s second largest city, a small seaport city situated in the southernmost tip of the country.

Ms. Garcia spent about six months there. Her good natured account of her oft-times lonely and frustrating experience, of the claustrophobic and secluded world of Yemeni women, did not increase my desire to visit Yemen. I didn’t realize until reading her book the degree to which a strict Islamic code restricts their lives: they cannot leave their home without wearing an abaya, which covers them from head to toe. Many of them also wear a niqab, a veil that leaves only their eyes visible.

They can’t go anywhere in public unless accompanied by a male member of their family—a husband, brother, father or uncle. At least Yemeni women have their families to keep them company; Ms. Garcia was utterly alone, as were the other teachers, making her isolation all the harder to bear.

Ms. Garcia’s classes were large. It was frustrating because all she could see of her students, women dressed their abayas and niqabs, was their eyes, so she had trouble distinguishing one from another. “I’m standing; there’s a sea of black fabric and eyes everywhere. The image is intense, drawing me into the blackness like a camper to a fire. The more I stare, the more intense it becomes….” Whatever she tried, like having them wear nametags, didn’t last long, and she was soon back trying to decipher who they were.

As an American teacher Ms. Garcia could have worn Western attire in the classroom but she found it easier to also wear an abaya.

“Initially, I don’t have a problem wearing an abaya to the remote campus and around town. It’s hot and bit awkward over my clothes, but nothing I haven’t been able to get used to, especially since it makes security check points more tolerable. Over time, however, I become conflicted about the garment: my figure is hidden and it’s not unlike wearing a graduation gown every day. Clothing is no longer a form of self-expression because I now blend in with every other female, which, of course, along with modesty is the main paint. Regardless, the abaya has rendered me formless and invisible, so I don’t feel like myself anymore.”

Of course, the title of the book refers to the absurdity of wearing an abaya when doing some things, like playing tennis or bowling, two activities which Ms. Garcia engaged in while in Yemen.

Her assignment was cut short by political unrest (this was 1978), and she returned to the United States. Upon her return she tried to make sense of her experience:

“It took me several years to understand my experience in Yemen, or at least make some sense of it. I realized that Yemen was just one piece in the puzzle of my life, an unexpected shape and size puzzle piece that I had to make fit. I now know it was a wake-up call, a call to action to start living authentically, living from my heart, not just with my head. I didn’t even realize I was asleep at the wheel. How do we know unless someone, or life, tells us? I think this is very common. People seem to just go through life doing what their or society expects of them, and I’m no exception. I went to college, got a job, and tried to advance in my field. I had goals and was considered a successful woman. What’s wrong with this? To answer my own rhetorical question, I think I was doing all of it without wakeful consciousness.”

I enjoyed reading Bowling in an Abaya. I enjoy Ms. Garcia’s bold candidness. I commend her for handling a difficult situation with fortitude and good grace. I wish her well in all her endeavors, which I hope will include writing about subsequent adventures.

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