I wrote a whole post yesterday about my initial swimming experience, and then as I was trying to post it realized that our internet connection had died again, so the entire thing was lost. Very irritating. Basically, the story in a nutshell is that I discovered that I’m more out of shape than I thought (either that or swimming really does kick one’s proverbial butt more than running on a treadmill), and that having an audience of local nationals who have never seen a real live woman in a bathing suit before is probably not the most comfortable experience for one who doesn’t like wearing bathing suits in public anyway.

But here’s the interesting thing that I realized during a discussion at a local dip function yesterday — those men were probably just as embarrassed that I was seeing them with their chests bare as I was about them staring in bewilderment at me in my modest black one-piece bathing suit. Which got me thinking. One of my favorite books is “A Return to Modesty,” which I think started out as an undergraduate thesis for a girl who graduated from Williams’ College, but the details are getting a little fuzzy right now. Basically, the author, Wendy Shalit explores the concept of modesty and how it has been lost and derided in our culture. She comes from a Jewish background, so a lot of the writings on what constitutes modesty is framed in the context of tzniut (modesty rules of Jewish law), but what she has to say is applicable in a non-Jewish environment. What I found fascinating was her whole discussion of how modesty actually provides a rich environment for private naughtiness, as it safe-guards that part of our persons and our mentality and protects it from over-exposure and becoming jaded. I’m sure I’m not doing a good job of explaining that, but suffice it to say that the book is really interesting and very well researched. Some of her hypotheses may not be everyone’s favorite, and I’m not saying that I’m going to adopt wearing a wig or headscarf as do devout Jewish women after they’re married, but the idea is very interesting to me.

The reason I got on that topic is that this is one of the few places I’ve been where the men really are expected to preserve modesty almost as much as the women. That may sound weird since the men are not expected to wear scarves or cover their faces or anything, but they are generally expected to cover their head with some sort of hat, and to wear long sleeves and long pants that are not tight or revealing. And, as I mentioned, they are very embarrassed about exposing their bare chests in front of strange women. Although I as an outsider can’t really comment on what it would be like to live that way every day, and I do enjoy being able to wear whatever I want back home without people staring at me, I have to say that I think there’s something to having a little more modesty in our public lives.

And, as a side note, it really irritates me when people come to a place like this and demand that the local population accept our way of dressing or acting without comment. I mean, if I go to a restaurant here without covering my hair (only for official business and only to one of the approved restaurants, but it is sometimes possible!), I do it accepting that the locals are going to stare. Not because I’m that beautiful or because my hair is Pantene-commercial perfect, but because they don’t normally see that. The same way that when a woman walks down the street in the States with one of those full-face black veils on, people stop and stare at her because they’re not used to it. So when my coworkers tease me about “going native” for wearing a scarf when I go out it grates on my nerves a bit.

Which brings me to the reason I actually started this post, the dip function I went to last night. Functions such as these are somewhat rare here but becoming more common as the situation continues to be relatively stable. What was funny to me was that about half the people there were actually affiliated with NGOs (non-governmental organizations like the UN, for example) and not with embassies. What I found hilarious was that the only people who really had interesting things to say about the meaningful work they were doing were these NGO people, who the embassy types typically ridicule for being granola, hippy types who have all “gone native” in their style of dress and such. (“Going native” is pretty much the cardinal sin of embassy life, I’m discovering, much worse than, say, hooking up with your married co-workers. But I digress.) I found myself wishing so much that I could run off with some of the NGO types (taking Danny with me, of course) and do what they do instead of my job, though, because it really seems as though they’re passionate about what they do and believe that they’re making a difference in the lives of others. Most of the embassy types, by contrast, mostly talk about how lame the party scene is here, how much longer they have here, and when the next party is.

I realized that I often fall into the habit of counting the days until my R&R and wishing I were somewhere else, but in my defense most of that is because I feel trapped in an ivory tower of the worst kind. I feel completely cut off from the place where we live — it’s bizarre how radically different everything is inside our walls and outside. Because of security concerns (which are legitimate, if I suspect that sometimes the security folks go a little overboard in the interest of keeping us safe I can certainly understand why they do) we’re forced to live in a completely unnatural environment. We’re surrounded by concrete and brick and razor wire and guns — how can we really even say we’ve lived here when the most “local color” I’ve experienced in nearly five months is when the cafeteria brought in a local band one night? It’s very surreal when I really start to think about it that my life bears absolutely no resemblance to that of anyone who lives within hundreds of miles of me, and yet I’m plopped down right smack in the middle of their city. Maybe that’s why I’ve been dreaming of gardening and working the land — the largest patch of “land” here is the strip of grass in front of the embassy and I’m totally cut off from anything resembling real life. I won’t continue to rant, but I think I’m on to something here.