08/29/13 8:00am

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Writer Jo-Ann Robotti in her old abaya purchased on her first visit to Saudi Arabia, left, and modeling her new, more elegant model, picked up on her most recent sojourn to the Kingdom.

When my husband Joe and I were asked to return to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia this past June, we anticipated some very different challenges than we had encountered during our first trip this past winter.

For one thing, it was the run-up to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and we were told people would already be in holiday mode, our students included. For another, we would be facing daily temperatures in the range of 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Joe and I scrambled to assemble wardrobes that would be appropriate for our roles as coaches in a professional development program, and that would work both in the extraordinary heat and the over-air conditioned indoor environments we would encounter.

I faced one more sartorial challenge: my “abaya,” a shoulder-to-floor length black robe that must be worn in public by all women, and which I had been given upon our arrival in January, had seen better days. The abaya is intended to preserve a woman’s modesty and keep her figure safe from the lascivious  eyes of unrelated males. To say that I was loathe to spend good money on a new one was an understatement, but I had already learned that the original one was much too basic for my role at the university and not appropriate for social events or important meetings. So determined to make the best of the situation, my fellow coach, Leah, and I enlisted the help of a Saudi woman with whom we had become friends and ventured down the rabbit hole into the world of abaya shopping.

Education of an untrained eye
Off we went to a mall one Friday afternoon, following our friend like two little black-clad ducklings. The mid-market shopping center she had chosen had one abaya store after another. Who knew you could fill dozens of shops with variations on a basic black garment? Prices started at 1,000 Saudi riyals— about $37 — and went up to hundreds of dollars. Our guide hastened to explain that if we wanted more exclusive, designer-quality abayas, we should go elsewhere. No, thank you, we said, this would do just fine.

But where to begin? Black is black, and to the untrained eye, one abaya looks like another. But we were to learn that wasn’t the case.

Confounding the process was the fact that there was no easy starting point such as size. The garments come in varying lengths and widths, but if the one you’ve chosen needs alterations, the on-site tailor simply does it on the spot. So what you are left with are racks upon racks of black robes, each one with a different style element that sets it apart from its dusky sisters.

We began trying them on, almost at random, just to get a sense of what styles we liked. There are no dressing rooms in these shops or in most women’s clothing stores in the Kingdom, for that matter. We had to either try the garments on over our existing clothes and abayas or execute the delicate maneuver where one of us shielded the shopper from view as the other slipped off the old robe and helped her into the new one. As we moved through the racks, our intrepid friend imparted a non-stop commentary on abaya protocols.

Abaya dos and don’ts
Watch out for the width of the sleeves, our friend advised. The full ones are graceful and beautiful but can be hazardous while eating; your sleeves will most likely end up in your food.

Given the heat, Leah and I were interested in the lightest fabrics we could find but were quickly disabused of that notion. Lightweight material could be too transparent, revealing the clothing (or lack thereof!) underneath. A light fabric only worked if we were wearing it over dark pants or a long skirt. Strike those from consideration … quickly.

Closures were another minefield. Some of the loveliest garments had no fasteners; you “clutched” them to keep them closed. Others had zippers, drawstring, snaps, buttons, or, for the most orthodox, an opening that went on over the head so there was no risk whatsoever of a chance glimpse of skin. Given that we went to work each day carrying laptops, totes and shoulder bags, snaps or buttons seemed our best option.

Our friend also gently guided us away from other less-obviously inappropriate choices such as abayas with “oriental” motifs. Since many “guest” workers in the Kingdom employed in menial jobs are Asians, choosing a garment that had oriental design elements would be considered low class and a fashion paux for professionals such as ourselves.

Fashion trends: who knew?
Once we had some of these basics down, the fun began. Did we want color embellishments and if so, what hue? Where did we want the decorations? Down the front, on the cuffs or the sleeves, on the body of the abaya, around the neck or across the back? Muslim women often eschew these last two options as the hijab, or head scarf they wear, may obscure the designs. With no such constraint, however, we thought “in for a penny, in for a riyal,” so began trolling the racks for robes with shoulder and back decorations.

But did we like shiny or matte beads, crystals, color panels, embroidery, ruffles, rhinestones, pearls, feathers, fringe, screen-printed designs or insets of patterns such as polka dots, abstract designs or floral motifs? Or maybe a dashing little number with black rubber studs across the shoulder or some rhinestone skull and crossbones motifs to channel our inner punk?

Trends in abayas change from season to season and even across the country. In the city of Jeddah, on Saudi’s western coast, some women are forsaking their all-black garb for abayas in pastels, shades of gray and brown. Jeddah’s humid seacoast climate and its Red Sea resorts reportedly encourage a more tolerant approach to abaya-wearing. This year, we were told, there were even some daring souls who were wearing shorter and more form-fitting abayas.

“When I go to Jeddah to visit my family,” a Riyadh-based female business executive told us, “I feel as though I am wearing my granny’s abaya. All my friends are wearing color and I show up all in black.”

Obviously, if you are in the country full-time, you probably want an abaya wardrobe. Women who work in mixed gender professional or corporate environments wear the abaya equivalent of the dark business suit; all black, with tasteful but understated embellishment. At the university, our students gave free rein to their creative sides, wearing garments adorned with 3-D flowers, abstract designs, bright colors and lots of of bling. And Western women seem to wear two kinds of abayas, either the most basic, such as what we had been given in January, or ones with lots of embellishments, probably thinking, as we did, that if you had to wear one, you might as well as have some fun with it.

Perhaps a little Versace number?
Upper class women often have their abayas custom made, patronizing Saudi designers who create one-of-a-kind garments for them. That went a long way in explaining why some of the more beautiful abayas we had seen were not in evidence in any of the mall’s shops. There are also exclusive “showcase bazaars” that are held each season featuring the work of local designers, as well as world class brands such as Versace and Donna Karan. But our quest was strictly for an off-the-rack, ready-to-wear garment. In short, a go-everywhere-do everything abaya.

After a long afternoon of trolling through innumerable shops (“You can’t buy the first one you like,” our friend admonished, “or you will always wonder if there was something better”), we made our choices and went through the obligatory haggling. Leah went with a slim robe with sprays of turquoise flowers embroidered on the sleeves, back and skirt. I opted for a flowing garment with embellishments of pearls on the shoulders and sleeves. A tailor adjusted the lengths to our friend’s finicky, floor-grazing standards and off we went.

All that remained was a trip to another store for some specially formulated abaya wash along with tips from our patient friend on how best to remove the dust of Riyadh’s streets that would inevitably settle on our new garments.

It was just another day in the Kingdom.

06/03/13 11:15am

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Flags being placed at an historic grave on Memorial Day. Advocates for restoration say the Island’s history is literally written in stone.

 

As part of its ongoing effort to engage the Shelter Island Community in the renovation of the historic Presbyterian Church burial grounds, the Daughters of the American Revolution will be offering a two-day Gravestone Preservation Workshop led by conservator Jonathan Appell, on Sunday, June 23 and Monday, June 24.

The restoration of the cemeteries, known as the North and South Burying Grounds, is a long range project the Shelter Island DAR has undertaken to preserve these artifacts of Island history. The two plots of land that straddle Route 114 in the Center contain some 535 primary monuments that date from the colonial era through modern times. According to Karen Kiaer, the DAR project’s chair, “there are more than 20 patriots and more than 50 Civil War veterans” who are buried there, as well as hundreds of local islanders whose descendents still live here — names such as Bowditch, Congdon, Clark, Dickerson, Tuthill and more.

The restoration program on the Island, according to Ms. Kiaer, is “extremely hands-on.” On Sunday evening, there will be a dessert event at the Presbyterian Hall with Mr. Appell and Southampton Town Historian Zachery Studenroth who conducted a comprehensive survey of the two plots in the winter of 2011 and subsequently outlined a program for treatment of the stones and markers.  The Historical Society, which is sponsoring this event, will be raiding its archives to costume Islanders, some of whom are descendents of those buried in the cemetery, and historical folk music will be performed. This event is open to the public.

The two-day interactive workshop, entitled, “Stone by Stone,”  will introduce participants to the problems associated with the preservation of stones and monuments; cleaning techniques for the different materials found on this site; raising, re-leveling and re-setting gravestones; repair of fallen stones and much more. Written course materials and all tools will be provided. Attendees will help perform some of the work but no prior experience is necessary. Event chair Sarah Shepherd, an herbalist, will also be giving a talk entitled, “Pushing up daisies” about historical and cemetery plantings.

Ms. Shepherd urged everyone, professionals and volunteers alike, to attend. It’s a wonderful way to “celebrate the echoes of our past, retold through stories, historical costumed interpreters and hands-on demonstrations.”

Since it publicly announced its intention last summer to undertake this project, the DAR has been busy raising money and writing grant proposals to underwrite the effort. “Our focus to date has been on finding the money to do the physical restoration work,” Ms. Kiaer said.

While she declined to provide either a fund raising target or the amount raised so far, she said that the DAR is approaching the project on a cost-per-monument basis. The grounds, she said, contain about a dozen unique “table top” monuments.  “Each of these table tops costs anywhere from $3,000-$6,000 to restore.”  One of these monuments belongs to Jonathan Nicoll Havens who was part of the New York delegation that approved the federal Constitution in 1788. Havens also served as the Island’s town clerk, a New York State Assemblyman and a United States Congressman until his death in 1795.

According to Ms. Kiaer, the DAR hopes to have every organization on Shelter Island be part of this effort. In addition to partnering with the Historical Society, the group has been in discussions with the Shelter Island School to develop a curriculum that “gets at the stories behind the people who are buried there.”

Other Islanders interested in gardening, landscaping or other aspects of the project will also be welcomed. Unlike other towns, such as Southampton, where cemeteries are owned by the municipality, this property belongs to the Presbyterian Church, which does not have the funds for the restoration effort but is supporting the DAR in its work. The organization has plans to work with the town on the subject of financial assistance.

The DAR believes that preserving these monuments is a critical part of maintaining the history of Shelter Island. These stones are the earliest public records of the town, said Ms. Kiaer. “And as such, it’s the municipality’s responsibility to maintain and care for them. Once they have fallen into disrepair, we’ve lost that history.”

The cost of the two-day seminar is $25; the Sunday evening dessert event is $10.  Places can be reserved in the workshop by emailing darcemetaryproject@gmail.com or calling Ms. Kiaer at 749-1853.

04/15/13 8:00am

COURTESY PHOTO

“You’re going where?”

That was the near-unanimous response from friends and family when my husband Joe Messing and I announced our plans to go to  the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) for the month of February. People then went on to question our safety (and our sanity) and always, to ask whether I would need to don a head scarf or face veil or walk six paces behind Joe.

As avid travelers, we considered the offer to coach an intensive business skills program at a private university in Riyadh an opportunity to explore a place we would never otherwise see. We figured we would learn at least as much as our students. In an increasingly homogenized Western world, the month in KSA provided an immersion into a culture radically different from our own, where Islam has primacy and impacts every aspect of daily life and social interaction.

The university was divided into male and female colleges and never the twain did meet. (“Across that courtyard and behind that wall,” one young man said in referring to the women’s campus, “is wonderland.”) Joe and I could not meet during the day and even video chats between us were discouraged. Our students, college seniors about to embark upon mandatory six-month assignments with various businesses in Riyadh, were bright and ambitious and thankfully, proficient in English. Not only were they extraordinarily welcoming to us (the legend of Arab hospitality is indeed the case) but they were endlessly curious about how Saudis were perceived in the U.S. and what our pre-conceptions had been about the country.

“Do people think we live in tents and have an oil well out back?” one young woman asked me.  Another said, “Were you worried about terrorists when you came here?”  No, I replied, “I was worried about wearing an abaya.”
Yes, as frivolous as that may seem, I was obsessed with wearing the abaya, a traditional cloak worn by women.

Of all the things that were strange and even uncomfortable about KSA — the strict segregation of the sexes, the fact that women weren’t allowed to drive, the razor-wired compound in which we lived, the crazy traffic and the “religious police” who patrolled the shopping malls, to say nothing of the extraordinary machinations that the society goes through to protect women from public view — one of the oddest parts of my daily life was certainly my floor length abaya.

Hogwarts in the desert?

Every woman in Saudi, Muslim or not, must wear an abaya when she’s out in public or in the presence of unrelated men.  The robe covers you from neck to feet (the more religious you are the further it drags on the ground) and is accompanied, for Muslim women, by the hijab or head scarf and for the more observant, some form of niqab, or face veil, and maybe even black gloves.

Having provided the relevant measurements in advance, our greeter at the airport presented me with a little box containing my abaya and matching scarf. It was a pretty basic affair; black polyester with some simple beading on the cuffs. My co-coach, Leah, decided that if we wore white blouses under it we could pretend we were Supreme Court Justices, but I decided to channel “Harry Potter” and think of it as a Hogwarts house robe. Both of these scenarios were far more appealing to us than having to wear the garment to protect our modesty, or worse, to cloak our entire beings and fade into the desert scenery.

Initially, all we saw were flocks of women in head-to-toe black so it seemed all abayas were the same and thus, by extension, so were the women.  But we soon realized that those seemingly uniform outfits were not so at all. Abayas can indicate socioeconomic, regional, religious, national or even political differences. Western women tended to wear plain ones (probably because that’s what they were given at the airport!). Ex-pat domestic workers such as Filipinos and Pakistanis had hoods so they could cover their hair if a member of the religious police was around. Women from Jeddah on the west coast break the black barrier and slyly introduce color. Some educated Saudis deplored the entire custom and wore the most basic robes they could find. Others, however, took the opportunity to turn this government dictate into a major fashion statement.

Baubles, bangles, bright shiny beads

We were amazed at the amount of “bling” on the robes and matching hijabs, particularly for evening wear, but even in the abayas the students wore to school. We saw sequins, embroidery, faux fur, cowboy-inspired fringe, marabou feathers, appliqués, deep velvet cuffs and lace trim. Styles change every year and buying new ones each spring and fall is apparently de rigueur. You can order bespoke garments from high-end designers for thousands of dollars or buy more reasonably priced off the rack robes for as little as $10 to $12. Every souk and mall has an array of abaya shops. In some perverse twist on the Stockholm Syndrome, Leah and I began to feel that our utilitarian polyester garments left us woefully under-dressed, particularly when we were dining in a nice restaurant or attending a special event.

Abayas are accessorized with up-to-the minute designer handbags, shoes and enormous sunglasses. In fact, a young American woman being posted to the U.S. Embassy recalled asking someone already in Riyadh what she should bring with her. Fully expecting to hear “sun block,” or “lots of moisturizer,” she was startled when the reply was “a good designer purse.” And as for the question of what goes under an abaya, the answer is, anything goes. You can catch of glimpse of attire that ranged from plain to quite sexy — perhaps a fabulous evening gown or cocktail dress — to contemporary yoga pants. (In one store I even saw black leather hot pants.)

Like so much of what we saw and experienced, the abaya turned out to be another manifestation of the push and pull of Saudi life; the constant tug between the dictates of a religious state butting up against the influences of their Internet-inflected modern life.

Yes. Just another day in the Kingdom.

03/29/13 5:00pm

JO-ANN ROBOTTI

The calendar may say “spring” but here on the East End, we march to our own rhythm.

While the days are blessedly longer, they are still very chilly (OK, some are downright cold!) with gardening and outdoor play still on the the long-term wish list. And to add insult to injury, Tax Day, April 15, is looming. What can be done to fill these last few dismal weeks of “pre-spring”?

Fortunately, there are several new free services that the Shelter Island Public Library is offering that can help you cope with the cold and the tax man, too.

Thanks to a sponsorship by Bridgehampton National Bank, the library’s popular museum pass program was expanded this year to include the new Parrish Art Museum and the South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center. These two local institutions join the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Children’s Museum of the East End. The details of each pass are different but all provide free admission for one to four adults and, in most cases, children as well. Just inquire at the library’s front desk to get the specifics for each museum. It’s easy, it’s free and it’s a great way to while away a dreary spring day. Thank you, BNB!

Another fun new service is TumbleBooks, an online collection of animated talking picture books that teach kids the joy of reading in a format they love. According to Library Director Denise DiPaolo, TumbleBooks has been described as “e-books for e-kids.” The collection provides enrichment for those who are reading independently, as well as providing support for students who require skill-building with a variety of exercises that can be matched with other areas of the curriculum. “The program has been exceptionally well received by ESL and special education teachers,” Ms. DiPaolo said.

TumbleBook e-books are ideal for pre-school to early middle-school-age children. The TumbleBookLibrary has a selection of children’s favorite storybooks, including old-time favorites, classic fairy tales and new children’s literature. All come to life in an educational and interactive way.  Older students or more accomplished readers can read the collection of read-along chapter books featuring narration, sentence highlighting and automatic page turning. A special Language Learning Section includes a growing selection of Spanish and French titles, many of which are bilingual and allow the  user to read the book in two languages.

There’s much, much more to be found in the TumbleBooks database, including a collection of puzzles,  games and videos from National Geographic that explore subjects such as history, geography, social studies, science and more.  These videos are paired with non-fiction titles in the collection. You can read “Meet the Meerkat,” for example, then watch the National Geographic video to learn more about this fascinating creature. To access this exciting database, just go to the library’s website, readshelterisland.org.

Now on to those taxes. The AARP tax preparer will be at the library every Monday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. until April 15, providing free tax services. Are you a student with a W-2 who needs to file taxes? In addition to completing tax returns for adult library card-holders, this year’s AARP tax preparer will also be completing the 1040 EZ form for students. Reservations are required, so please call the front desk to schedule an appointment for this service.

Looking ahead, it’s time to mark your calendars for two upcoming events: National Library Week and the Friends Student Art Show. During National Library Week, April 14 to 20, the library will be raffling off four $25 IGA gift cards. Winners will be announced on April 22, so stop by the front desk for details. The annual Student Art Show, a wonderful collaboration between the Friends of the Library and the Shelter Island School, will be held on Friday, April 26 in the community room with a reception from 5  to 7 p.m. Come see the wonderful works done by our student artists, which will be hung for the first time in the beautiful lower level gallery space.

Spring weather will come but in the meantime, see you at the library!

New fiction
“Calculated in Death,” J.D. Robb*
“Deadly Stakes,” J. A. Jance
“Guilt,” Jonathan Kellerman
“Hit Me,” Lawrence Block
“Proof of Guilt,” Charles Todd
“Red Velvet Cupcake Murder,” Joanne Fluke*
“Speaking From Among the Bones,” Alan Bradley
“Three Graves Full,” Jamie Mason
“Touch and Go,” Lisa Gardner
“Calling Me Home,” Julie Kibler
“Dreams and Shadows,” C. Robert Cargill
“Ever After,” Kim Harrison
“The Power Trip,” Jackie Collins
“See Now Then,” Jamaica Kincaid
“The Night Ranger,” Alex Berenson
“The Storyteller,” Jodi Picoult*
“Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” Karen Russell
“A Week in Winter,” Maeve Binchy*
“Big Sky River,” Linda Lael Miller (large print)
“The Lady Most Willing,” Julia Quinn (large print)
“Suspect,” Robert Crais (large print)
“The Third Bullet,” Stephen Hunter
“Extinction,” Mark Alpert

Non-fiction
“Going Clear,” Lawrence Wright*
“My Beloved World,” Sonia Sotomayor*
“Coolidge,” Amity Shlaes*
“Francona,” Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy*
“Hitmaker,” Tommy Mottola
“Long Shot,” Mike Piazza
“Fat Chance,” Robert H. Lustig
“The Future,” Al Gore
“Give Me Everything You Have,” James Lasdun
“Ike and Dick,” Jeffrey Frank
“Inside Rehab,” Anne M. Fletcher
“The Inventor and the Tycoon,” Edward Ball
“New Netherland,” Firth Haring Fabend
“Nigellissima,” Nigella Lawson
“The Plan,” Lyn-Genet Recitas
”Radiation,” Robert Peter Gale and Eric Lax
“The Searchers,” Glenn Frankel
“Ten Years Later,” Hoda Kotb and Jane Lorenzini
“Why Priests?” Garry Wills

*New York Times best seller

12/19/12 3:44pm

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | Library Board President Jo-Ann Robotti joins the parade of list makers at the end of 2012 with what was hot with Island readers.

‘Tis the season of comfort, joy and, oh, did we mention, lists?

Yes, lists. Everywhere you turn, someone is recapping the best and worst of the year that is about to end. Movies, TV shows, plays, restaurants, books and anything else you can think of. Blame it on David Letterman, but you’re sure to find a “Top 10” of almost anything at this time of year.

So, in keeping with the spirit, what were the top books that were checked out of the Shelter Island Public Library in 2012? What videos were in high demand and what exactly did our younger patrons read?

Here goes!

In the category of adult fiction, mysteries and thrillers dominated the top 10 list. Jane Green’s “Another Piece of My Heart” was the most frequently circulated book, followed by Harlan Coben’s “Stay Close” and “Private: #1 Suspect” by James Patterson. Other top novels included David Baldacci’s “The Innocent,” James Patterson’s “Guilty Wives” and Sara Paretsky’s “Breakdown.” Books by Jodi Picoult (“Lone Wolf”), Lisa Scottoline (“Coming Home”), Lisa Gardener (“Catch Me”) and Faye Kellerman (“Gun Games”) were our other favorites. The 10th most widely circulated work of fiction was “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the underground erotic sensation by E. L. James that has spawned two sequels and a host of imitators.

“Then Again,” Diane Keaton’s memoir was the most circulated work of non-fiction, followed by “Seal Team 6” (Howard E. Wasdin), “The Blood Sugar Solution” (Mark Hyman), “The Hamptons” (Ricky Lauren), “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly, “Drift” by Rachel Maddow and “Imagine” by Jonah Lehrer.

Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy continued to lead the pack among young adults. The most popular work of non-fiction, however, was “The Big Book of One Direction” by Mary Boone, about the latest British Boy Band import. According to the library’s assistant director, Laura Dickerson, all the ‘tweens have been talking about going to their concerts and this book seems to be de rigueur background reading. Our youngest patrons went for “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever” by Jeff Kinney, the “Lego Star Wars Character Encyclopedia” by Hannah Dolan, “If You Give a Dog a Donut” by Laura Joffe Numeroff and “Fly Guy Meets Fly Girl,” an easy reader by Tedd Arnold.

On the video front, “The Help,” “Midnight in Paris” and “Hugo” stole the show.

So on to 2013 and all it has to bring in the way of the new and the wonderful. Don’t forget that there are still lots of year-end programs at the library; just check the latest newsletter or the website (http://readshelterisland.org) for all the latest information.
Have a wonderful holiday season and we look forward to seeing you at the library!