Another story that I’d like to tell you about, that had a huge impact on me, was my interaction with doctor Abdullah. He was the chairman of the conference. He asked me if he could consult me about something that was weighing heavy on his heart. “Neha, you remind me of my daughter, except you are very different than she is. You’re incredibly strong, you travel the world, and you speak at international conferences. I see you taking on challenges with ease. My daughter on the other hand, she is weak. Whenever she faces a challenge I know that she’s weak, because she cries. I’m only afraid, that she is not going to make it in the world. Is there any way that you can help her?”
I thought for a moment, I had known him for about seven days. So, I said, “Dr. Abdullah, what if I don’t think that this is about your daughter?”
“Well then, who would it be about?”, he asked.
“Well, I’ve been in your country for seven days now, and I have watched you flawlessly orchestrate a conference of international scientists. I’ve spoken to your colleagues, and your patients, who speak incredibly highly of you. And I’ve even spent time with your family, they too revere you. I am curious if you love your daughter so much, that in the face of her tears, it’s one of the only times in the world, that you’re not in control?”
The longest 60 seconds of silence in my life, happened following that comment. And then he said very thoughtfully, “This is absolutely correct, thank you my friend. I have much to learn about communication.”
You know it’s interesting, I think as our society we are pretty biased against tears, cross culturally. That we have a lot of judgments about whether they make us weak, or it’s just showing emotion. There’s some recent medical research out now, that shows that tears are actually healing. William Frey out of Minnesota now reports that you can measure stress hormone in tears. And endorphins are actually released when you have a good cry. And endorphins are the feel-good hormones that you get after you exercise, so listen — cry away, you’re going to feel good.
The last story I’d like to tell you about is, I had a rare opportunity to chat with Prince Abdul Aziz. And he asked me, “Neha, what is it that the media has taught you about our culture that you find to be true? And what is it that you find not to be true?”
“Well what I find to be true is that the separation of men and women, both at the conference and at the society, is real. What I find not to be true is that I don’t — that you and everyone I’ve met this week have treated me with so much honor and respect, I didn’t expect that.
My parents were raised in India amongst a lot of Hindu-Muslim conflict and they feared for my safety. They also worried that I might not assimilate very well in a culture that was so different from the one I had been raised in. My colleagues told me, that I would feel like a second class citizen. Because I was a woman. I have not had that experience.
The second thing that I find not to be completely true — I’m sure there’s some truth — is that the women they told me — Okay, let me tell you again. The second thing that I find that the media says that might not be totally true, the women that I spoke with actually told me, that they love their abayas, and burqas. They say, “Dr Neha, it’s our fashion, we get rhinestones on it, we get Chanel abayas, we love our abayas, and you know what else it does? We feel like precious jewels, because we don’t have to deal with that unwanted attention from the men”. Ughh.
I thought, well, that certainly could be true, because it’s how they have been raised. Many of them felt very comfortable there. So that I definitely didn’t expect to hear.”
“Now it’s my turn, I get to ask you some questions. Why is it, that when I have violated rules that you, your moral police could send a woman to jail for, why is it, that you honor and respect me so much?”
“Okay, I cheated. When I heard that you were coming I actually didn’t know what to do, but when I got the word, that you got off the plane, you were in black, and you had covered your head with a scarf. I knew that your intention in coming here was to honor our culture. In that moment I knew my job was not to make you part of our culture, it was to honor the culture from which you come.”
And a simple act of covering my head with a scarf, to honor the Saudi culture, had made it possible for them to open their hearts to me, and be more authentic than I could have ever imagined.