Living under the veil
When Susan Glasier sees Muslim women covered head-to-toe in shapeless burkas, she can relate more than most white North Americans.
In her memoir Bend Like a Willow — A Tale of an Arab Promise, Glasier relives her six-year marriage to an Algerian Muslim man, part of which was spent “living under the veil” in a small Algerian village in the 1960s.
Glasier, who worked as an Olds College agricultural instructor and now lives in Red Deer, said she needed to write the book in order to explain her past to her grandchildren.
They ask: How could she, a modern, independent, confident woman, have spent six years accepting the kind of life she would never tolerate today?
The short answer, according to Glasier, is that she was a different person then and the 1960s were a different time.
“I tried to tell my grandchildren individual stories about my life, but they didn’t mean anything because they were not in context.”
In her well-written, self-published memoir, Glasier sticks to a self-imposed mandate of not being judgmental, and just “telling the details that made up my story.”
She recounts her relationship with the mysterious foreign man whom she was to marry from its confounding beginning right to its heart-breaking end. “It’s really a love story that could have happened to people who were not of different cultures,” she said.
“What’s shocking, was for him to have been of his culture and to have married me.”
Glasier grew up as the only child of overbearing parents connected to the U.S. military. The family settled in Arizona, where Glasier attended university and first met Mohamed Chaabane, an Algerian exchange student.
From the start, “Moe” was gentlemanly, appreciating her help with his English and showing his gratitude with a gift of expensive shoes. But he also expected her to do exactly as he said and lost his composure when she didn’t.
Glasier, who was used to being ordered around by her parents, didn’t question his domineering attitude.
Chaabane was generally polite and attentive, so Glasier was unprepared for what occurred in the bedroom of a small adobe house he was renting.
She describes her date rape as something that sprang from misguided preconceptions on both of their parts.
She couldn’t imagine that her seemingly caring boyfriend would act that way and Chaabane couldn’t believe that she, a 19-year-old American girl, could be sexually inexperienced.
He was horrified to discover that he had violated a virgin, explaining that his friends had assured him that all American women of that age had previous sex partners.
Chaabane figured out she was pregnant before Glasier had a clue about her condition, which further speaks to her naiveté. The author explained that sex wasn’t a subject that her parents had ever broached with her.
Chaabane proposed to Glasier and she ended up marrying him at age 20 in 1963 for love — but eventually realized that his motivation was more tied to doing the right thing. “It was the Muslim honour, the sense that ‘I’ve done this and feel a strong responsibility.’ ”
Strangely enough, her Arab fiancé ended up bonding with her authoritarian parents, promising he would look after her and the two children they eventually had together — and he did, in his way.
The book’s title comes from Chaabane’s warning to Glasier: “If I take you to my country, you must learn to bend like a willow or you will snap.”
The bending starts almost from the first day the young American arrives in post-colonial Algeria. While she was amazed by the beauty of Algiers and a countryside that was unobstructed by telephone lines, Glasier was initially shocked at conditions in Chaabane’s village of Mascara.
Besides learning North African cooking, (“The spices are in my soul,” said the author, who still makes baclava, couscous and other specialties), she also had to learn other basic survival skills.
“I learned to poop in a hole,” she said of the local pits that were dug in the dirt and then covered up.
Chaabane thought his beloved country would have improved after the 1954-1962 Algerian war of independence, but his homecoming was a disillusionment. He found that French nationals still held most good jobs, leaving scant opportunities for educated Arabs like himself. The country was poorer and now there were soldiers and roadside bandits to stop, harass and steal from people.
In addition, he had an “infidel” wife that made it harder for him to re-assimilate into his own culture.
Glasier was sometimes abandoned for days by her husband and was unable to contact him to see when he would return. She struggled with loneliness and found it difficult crossing the cultural and language divides. The mother of two spent much of her time with Algerian wives who were sometimes hostile or indifferent to her.
But Glasier also established several friendships and was surprised to discover strong feminists existed in a country without women’s rights.
One of her friends, Rashida, “held her husband close to her,” gave her opinions on all family matters, “and there was no way she would wear a veil anywhere, at any time.”
Glasier also recalled that one of Chaabane’s strong-minded aunts had told him off for making his new American wife wear a veil in his village. “She was so angry, saying, ‘She isn’t a Muslim, she shouldn’t have to wear that!’ ”
The covering was recalled as hot and bothersome, but also a kind of protective cocoon from other people’s stares.
Looking back at the events of half a century ago, the 70-year-old author now sees her first husband as a dichotomy.
In the pages of her memoir, Chaabane comes across as intelligent and relatively humane, despite several violent outbursts. He never demanded that she switch to the Muslim religion, saying faith was personal and that she must choose her own path.
While raised in a traditional patriarchal society, he had a close bond with his mother, who died in childbirth and protected his sisters when they were beaten by their other brothers.
At the same time, Glasier doesn’t believe Chaabane ever loved her the way that she loved him, because she was never an equal in his eyes. “Maybe you can have a fondness for your wife . . . but it was ownership.”
How their marriage ended was painful for Glasier, but she now believes it was inevitable, given their differences.
Both parties remarried after Glasier returned to America with their son and daughter, and there was no communication with Chaabane for many years.
But after her mother’s death in the mid-1970s, Glasier discovered a stash of letters that Chaabane had regularly written to her and their children after they’d left him behind in Algeria.
Her parents had never passed them on, fearing it would interfere with her new marriage.
Glasier used the letters to help write the memoir that she hopes will not only explain her past with Chaabane, who died in 2000 (some years after he attended his daughter’s wedding in Olds), but give North Americans a more realistic and empathetic view of a culture that some people like to demonize.
“I feel grateful,” she said, for her time with Chaabane. She left her marriage with two children and a greater knowledge of the world.
“I think I understand other people better and have some insight into another culture. I see the goodness in Muslim religion and see that the majority of Muslim people want peace. . . .
“I don’t regret any of it.”
Bend Like the Willow is available from Sunworks in Red Deer as well as from www.bendlikethewillow.ca for $24.75.
The author will be signing copies of the book from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. today at the Golden Circle craft fair in Red Deer, at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 26 at the Olds Library, and at 2 p.m. on Dec. 2 at the Red Deer Public Library.