Expat Eyes

This blog contains the photographs, observations and reflections of Rena Diana, an educator and writer, during extended stays in the Arabian Gulf, China, and Mongolia.

Getting Our Bearings


“Our families have been here as long as anyone can remember. We live well. Life involves a lot of work, but life is good.”
Myagmarsuren in Women of Mongolia by Martha Avery

While in Ulaanbaatar, we stayed for weeks at a time in the Corporate Hotel (the gray one in the center of the photo above), a short walk from my husband’s office.  It is small, no-frills, and comfortable.  From our window we saw the magical Bogd Khan Mountains. When Stewart was at work, I explored the city a bit but spent most of my time in the Chairman Restaurant on the 2nd floor of the hotel, reading and writing. It became my new nest.


Journal Entry- November 4, 2011: “Here I am, seated at my favorite corner table in this little restaurant in the northern part of Outer Mongolia, trying to get used to broccoli and beets for breakfast, while listening to old-timey western songs like “Oh, Donna”, “Unchained Melody” and “There’s A Summer Place” on the CD player in the alcove. A bit of a disconnect! The space is quite simple- very low ceilings, not much light- but they have made it look as attractive and welcoming as possible, with pastel tablecloths, napkins folded into geometric shapes and tucked into glasses, and vases of carnations. Several times a day a young Mongolian man plays  western-style music –beautifully- on  a mini-grand piano.


The first meal bill I got here was a shock. It came to 20, 900 togrogs (or ‘tugriks’).  Not knowing the exchange rate, I was thinking I might have to stick to beets while here. I later discovered it amounted to $16.17. Computing here is going to stretch my brain. (See post “Nuanced Numbers”,   July 11, 2012)


 I am always amazed to see, wherever I am, be it a rooftop deck in Dubai, a patio in Istanbul, or a windowsill in remote Ulaanbaatar, the same scruffy, brown sparrows that I see back in Baltimore. These dear wee winged creatures, carrying on their daily business all over the world.  Comforting. I was feeling rather low, but they truly cheered me up. “



The staff of the Chairman Restaurant became my acquaintances. Their friendly manners and fresh, healthy good looks were lovely, and they made me feel right at home, gracious and attentive, while also respecting my solitary routine. Four young women were a special part of my day: Tsutsaa and Orkhon were the servers, and Badam was the chef.  They knew very little English and were curious about me, since I sat there all day long!  We communicated through pantomime, sketches and a few  key words. The manager, Daria, on the other hand, spoke English fluently, as she and her husband had lived in the USA for a while and, in fact, her young daughter is still there with the grandparents.  Daria is typical of well-to-do young Mongolians who have traveled to America to further their formal education, and have recently returned to Ulaanbaatar to take part in the burgeoning development taking place.  Women have played a vital role not only in the history of Mongolia but also in recent political and economic enterprises. More on that topic in future posts.


Some basic facts. Outer Mongolia is about the size of western Europe, bordered by Russia and China, with three geographic zones: the Gobi desert in the south, the steppes in the middle , and dense forestland and mountains in the north and west.

The population in 2011 was 2.8 million , 45% of whom live in Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia differs from the rest of Asia in that it is a nomadic culture, which means individuals there are accustomed to their  personal freedom.  Surrounding the capital city are “gertowns” –or shantytowns. These felt gers are scattered all over the hillsides around the city,  emitting smoke out of their makeshift tin chimneys from fires ignited by whatever fuel they can find. This is the source of much air pollution.  One of the country’s  biggest challenges as it modernizes will be how to manage the transition from gers to permanent residences.

The average life expectancy is 68, which makes Stewart and me among the elderly here. A humbling thought!







As these photographs express, there is a surprise around every corner in Ulaanbaatar.  Every walk I took was an adventure and an education. Just when I was thinking the people looked down-and-out, I would see a beautifully dressed young woman or giggling, carefree children.  Just when I was thinking it seemed quite modern and progressive, I would see a sign that seemed primitive. Just when I was thinking it seemed to be distanced from international human rights issues, I would see a politically activist sign. It is a city that defies stereotypes. The  conflicting sentiments in the quotations at the beginning and the end of this post describe a country in the midst of a dramatic transformation. –Next Post: Excursion into the Countryside

“I don’t know anything about politics or laws, but our life is difficult. It was better before than it is now, but I think the future will be better. I believe in ‘better’…” Dash, in Women of Mongolia, by Martha Avery




 DSCN1801“Mountains…poems of geology stretching beyond any boundaries and seemingly even beyond the world.”
Norman Maclean

Ulaanbaatar is on the banks of the Tuul River in the foothills of the Khangai Mountains. The patron saint of the city  is the massive mythological bird named Khangarid,  who represents eternity, strength, courage and power. He is everywhere.  Literally. On pictures, banners, signs, napkins, and souvenirs. A force.


Mongolians believe their capital city is guarded by the Bogd Kahn Uul, which means  “Holy King Mountain”.   It was established as a protected area in 1778, reputedly the first such designation in the world.  The flamboyant Khangarid is the deity residing in these mountains.  The etched cliff facades resemble the lined faces of  sages, imposing and weathered. It is easy to imagine Khangarid and a host of ancient souls embedded in the Khangai range.

IMG_4449For several centuries, the  rulers of Mongolia were called  the Bogd Kahn. The last man bearing that title was  born in Tibet  in 1869, moved to Ulaanbaatar (then called Urga) in 1874,  and enthroned as the great Khan in 1911, when Outer Mongolia declared independence from the Qing Dynasty, China’s last dynasty. Thus, the king was named for the mountain rather than the other way around!

IMG_4448This Bogd Khan lost power briefly when Chinese troops occupied the country in 1919. A revolution in 1921, led by Mongolians, put him back in power in 1924.  After his death, a Mongolian Revolutionary group, led by followers of Russian Communists, established the Mongolian People’s Republic, which lasted until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. In 1992 the present day constitution was written, making Mongolia a democracy.

During the transition from the last Bogd Kahn, a Buddhist, to the reign of the Soviets, there was an effort to suppress all expressions of religion.  The Mongolians, however, are a deeply spiritual people, who are especially reverent toward their natural world.  They feel the presence of the last  Kahn,  and the mountain bearing his name is considered sacred.

There is a certain mystery  and enchantment about Mongolia- land of bird deities and mountain spirits.  We felt like we were on the edge of the earth there, swept up in a vast panorama, witnessing both centuries past and centuries to come.


Next Post: Getting Our Bearings





                                       “There are more animals than men, so they still have the world as God made it, and the men are the noble synthesis of Ghenghis Khan, the warrior, and the Dali Lama, the gentle religious leader.”

Zahava Hanan, Canadian Writer and Poet

From the glittering new cities of Dubai and Doha to the rugged outpost of Ulaanbaatar. From words cluttered with consonants to words filled with vowels. From stifling heat to frigid cold (40 degrees below 0 in the winter). From diamond bright skyscrapers to felt gers (yurts) and squat concrete buildings.  From a benevolent monarchy to a young democracy. The transition from the Arabian Gulf to Mongolia was dizzying.IMG_1683

IMG_1834There is only one narrow road,  filled with potholes, from the airport into the capital city of Ulaanbaatar as opposed to the eight-lane super highway into Dubai- clogged with an assortment of disorderly vehicles, some having steering wheels on the left and some on the right. Along the way are scattered humble  hovels and simple houses beside the ubiquitous tent homes called gers. (More on them in a later post.)

IMG_4399Present day Mongolia is like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in 1970, when they were simple unknown fishing villages. The discovery of oil catapulted them into a frenzied spiral of growth and a presence on the global stage. The recent discovery of copper, coal and gold is having the same effect on Mongolia. So these countries share the mixed blessing of natural resources. Mongolia, however, is just beginning to face the challenges inherent in this dynamic.

As we settled into this intriguing place, we had to reorient ourselves, to shift from fast forward to rewind.

Mongolia is part California Gold Rush/ Wild Wild West, part Cold War 1950’s Soviet Union Sinister Blandness, and Part Buddhist, Pastoral Landscape, with flashes of wealth, sophistication and modernity.IMG_1671

I have developed the same level of respect for the proud Mongolians as I feel for the Emiratis and Qataris. They possess the same eagerness and determination. They aim to preserve their culture while adapting to the Third Millennium and the rest of the world’s sudden interest in them… I hope they can.



The Middle East: My Questions

 MuscatOmanNov08 147

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

John Muir

Confession: I have been avoiding writing this post for months because: #1: It is hard. #2: I do not want to get into political or religious commentary. #3:  I am loathe to judge another person, let alone another culture.  But I feel obligated to do a sort of “reality check” after focusing primarily on the impressive, beautiful, admirable aspects of the Arabian Gulf. It is a sorely misunderstood part of the world.

When I finally did start writing, I kept getting tangled up in my thinking and coming back to the remark above by the environmentalist John Muir. He is  talking about the natural world in the broadest sense: trees, bacteria, rocks, fish, mountains, human beings, tears, sweat, cultures, stars, worms, religions, myths, life, breath, death.  We are one community.IMG_2273

As I ponder the ongoing strife and tragedies in the Middle East and try to sort out what seems “right” and what seems “wrong”, my lines of analysis criss-cross. There are contradictions and inconsistencies within every culture, indeed within every human heart and soul.

I am repelled by acts of aggression, civil rights violations and human rights atrocities, not only in the Middle East but also all over the world.  I am baffled and outraged by how radical extremists of all faiths and political persuasions condone and justify their acts of violence.  Genocide? Honor Killings? Holy Wars?  Even the terms are traps.




My husband and I just finished watching again the superb series The Six Wives of Henry Vlll, starring Keith Michell.  Recalling the bitter feuds boiling over for centuries in the West among families and nations and within the Christian Church made us reconsider our view of the ongoing controversies in the Middle East.  The bad news: human nature is complex and flawed. The good news: things can get better.

I will always wonder…

What is the difference between purists/fundamentalists and extremists?

How can the tender, flowery love language of Arab and Persian poets co-exist with the hard edges and the brutality of life there?

A poet in Doha- (WSJ ,Nov. 30 2012) was sentenced to life in prison on charges of undermining the authority of the ruling al Thani family. Criticizing leaders is against the law in both Qatar  and the UAE. How can these two governments progress toward more liberal policies for their citizens when they will not allow dissent?

But what I wonder most is what will happen to these innovative, energetic, proud cities in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.  I will watch, fondly, with hope, from afar.

The posts on the Middle East will end just as they began, with a poem by Hafiz, who says it all in 29 words.

Out of a great need
We are all holding hands
And climbing.
Not loving
Is a letting go.
The terrain around here
Is far too dangerous
For that.

(Photo credits: The drawing of the Muslim couple in the jar was in an exhibit at the Bastakia Art Fair, Spring 2010; the “relationships collage” was seen at Virginia Commonwealth University in Doha, Fall 2011- artists unknown.)    Next Post: Mongolia: The Last Frontier


The Middle East: My Favorite Things

IMG_1383Bedouins” 1905-6 -Opaque and Translucent Watercolor by John Singer Sargent Brooklyn Museum

“This cruel land can cast a spell.”

William Thesiger

From the moment I entered Dubai in the fall of 2007, and then  Doha two years later, I was intrigued by the Arabian Gulf.  It is a land of stark contrasts and enchantment.  Sages and Seers. Treasure and Terror.   Faith and Fantasy. Dazzle and Decay. Magic and Mirage. In addition to the wonderful people we have come to know, there is much here that I will remember fondly and images that will remain with me. Here are a few…


The Magic Carpet Rides:  Flying into and out of these two cities is a unique experience because they suddenly rise up out of nowhere,  surrounded by vast, rolling expanses of desert.  Every detail is visible.  The dunes, the oases, the Arabian Sea speckled with dhows. Palm Jumeirah looks like a lace doily. Estates of Sheikhs, primitive Bedouin compounds, and the gleaming needle tower Burj Khalifa.  The Museum of Islamic Art,  resembling a pile of blocks (See Post “An Exalted Space”,   4/23/2012   ), the Corniche,  Sheikha Mozah’s futuristic circular home,  the Zig Zag Towers.  Swooping down into a fantasy kingdom with Aladdin!

The  Proverbs:  Every culture has these, but the ones I collected here seem especially humorous and wise.  There are Mark Twains everywhere!

Don’t sleep between people who sit.

Avoid sitting with stingy people.

Don’t stamp your feet while walking.IMG_0840

Don’t be sad about your food.

Don’t look behind frequently when talking.

The answer to a fool is silence.

Only a blind man knows the weakness of the eyes.

Never give advice in a crowd.


Cardamom coffee poured into tiny cups from elegant long-spouted pitchers called dollas.
Mint Lemonade. Simply divine.
The fragrance of Spices in the Souqs.


MuscatOmanNov08 171         MuscatOmanNov08 144

The stunning calligraphy .IMG_1202IMG_1226
Arabesque designs.
The colorful decorative Tiles and Lanterns.
Prayer Beads
and dusty sandals.
and Abayas.
among the fronds of the palm-shaped island.
The dramatic skyline of Dubai and the sunset reflecting off Burj al Arab.

ShorelineAptViewsOct08 002

TriBeCa Film Festival in Doha.
Emirates Literature Festival in Dubai.

The Call to Prayer.

The emerging, vibrant voices of Young Artists, especially women.

The sense of Romance

“The subject tonight is love.
And for tomorrow night as well.
As a matter of fact, I know of no better topic
For us to discuss.”

Hafiz- c. 1320-1389

What more is there to say?           Next Post:  The Middle East- My Questions

“Bedouins” 1905-6- Opaque and Translucent Watercolor- John Singer Sargent   Brooklyn Museum


I Don’t Know Where Here Is!… Relocating


“ You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never really leave home, so it is all right.”

Maya Angelou

(Credit for finding this quote should go to Gusty Scattergood, a superb children’s librarian and author. Check out her blog: http://ascattergood.blogspot.com)

In the interim since my last post, in November 2012, we have returned to the Unites States and moved to New York City, although Baltimore, Maryland is still our home base, Vermont our family gathering spot, and I am “from” Birmingham, Alabama.  My blog has continued to focus on the Middle East, but in reality we have spent the last year and a half in Beijing and Ulaanbaatar. Finally I am back to writing again. My intention is to write one more blog on our life in the Arabian Gulf, and then focus on the rich, colorful cultures of China and Mongolia, with regular posts again. So here I am in Manhattan, sitting in space  #241 at a long table in the immense Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library at Bryant ParkIMG_0520I spend my days strolling down busy sidewalks, dodging pre-schoolers (in helmets) racing by on mini-scooters and dog-walkers managing six dogs on leashes, rather than the intrepid Chinese (without helmets), on their bicycles and motorcycles, touktouks and cars – yes, on the sidewalks! The blog will continue to be called expateyes, for I will view the world through expat eyes for the rest of my life, regardless of where I am residing. To use a phrase from the author Julia Cameron, I am a “tourist on my own terrain.”


A friend asked me recently what my blog is about. Rather than respond with my usual answer- “Oh, it is about travel and other cultures…” (the text), I surprised myself by telling him it is about identity and the notion of  “home” (the sub-text). How living abroad has both challenged and comforted me. How it has transformed me.

Of course there have been frustrations, such as coping with feelings of fragmentation and lack of continuity, one foot in the “home country” and the other in the “host country”. There is a time warp, a certain disorientation, and mental adjustments to make. But mostly there has been a remarkable, seamless fluidity. I feel close to the friends we have made from all over the world and the places in each city where we worked, played, and developed routines -the familiar neighborhoods. They are part of who I am now, part of my inner landscape.DSCN1010

I am grateful. I have lived so many lives. And while my family and long-time friends are at the center of my heart, the whole world is home. Maya Angelou captures the irony. We can leave our homes, but our homes never leave us.

Referring to what he calls his “pilgrim’s progress”, Richard Rohr in Falling Upward, expresses this sentiment eloquently:

“I was lucky enough to puddle-jump between countries, cultures, and concepts….yet the solid ground of the perennial tradition never really shifted. It was only the lens, the criteria, the inner space, and the scope to expand. I was always being moved toward greater differentiation and larger viewpoints, and simultaneously toward a greater inclusivity in my ideas, a deeper understanding of people, and a more honest sense of justice. God always became bigger and led me to bigger places.”

(Photo below from an exhibit at the Bastakia Art Fair, Spring 2010, Dubai)



Next Post: The Middle East: My Favorite Things

Magnificent Mosque in Muscat

“Travelling makes one modest-
you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
Gustave Flaubert, Flaubert in Egypt

Yes, I agree that travelling and living in different cultures is humbling, which is part of the beauty of it. You become less self-absorbed, less self-important. But I also believe that while you become smaller, you also become larger. Instead of feeling insignificant and separate, you feel comforted and connected. Everywhere we go, we see more similarities than differences. We feel a sense of belonging rather than alienation. Our experience in Oman certainly reinforced this. It is a quiet little country that makes you feel at home.

Oman is not a place we hear or read much about because it is a relatively tranquil, stable oasis in the Arab world, bordering the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, along the Arabian Sea and the Strait of Hormuz. It is the oldest independent state in the Arab world, has never been a British protectorate, and was one of the first nations to formally recognize the young United States of America. It is an absolute monarchy, ruled by the al-Said family since 1744. Oman has managed to maintain friendly relations with other countries, including ones who are hostile to each other, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. While it is a Muslim country, minority religions are welcome and active. Until 1970, Oman was isolated from the rest of the world. Then the current ruler, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, deposed his father and modernized the country in a thoughtful, measured way.

“…one of the lessons of Oman is that one of the best and most cost effective ways to tame extremism is to promote education for all.”
Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, October 13, 2010

In this article, entitled “What Oman Can Teach Us”, Kristof describes Oman as “peaceful and pro-Western” and cites many examples of the country’s progress in infrastructure, technology, women’s rights and education for both boys and girls.

“The suppression of ideas and thought is a major sin, and we will never allow anyone to stifle freedom of thought.”
Sultan Qaboos, at Sultan Qaboos University, May 2000

Yet Oman still feels like an ancient Arab country. It is not aspiring to be a cosmopolitan financial and entertainment center. The terrain is dramatic, with rugged mountains and a stunning sea coast as well as deserts. Omani men wear simple white or brown robes and “kuma” (embroidered hats)  and the women wear colorful headscarves, often wrapped like turbans  –a striking contrast to the more formal  black and white attire of the Emiratis and Qataris.

The magnificent mosque- the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque– in the title of this post is in the capital city, Muscat, and is featured in the slide show below. Construction was completed in 2001 after six years of labor. The scale is immense. The prayer rug in the “musalla”,  or the “place of prayer”,  contains 1,700,000 knots and  28 colors from mostly natural vegetable dyes, weighs 21 tons and covers over 4,300 square meters. It took four years to weave in Iran, incorporating traditional Persian designs. The main chandelier, from Germany, is 14 meters tall.  Much of the architecture resembles other places of worship and holy spaces of different faiths, especially Christian ones,  all over the world. Much will seem familiar to non-Muslims. The elegant arches and walkways, with an exquisite interplay of light and shadow. The dazzling gold fixtures and gleaming marble surfaces. The handsome sandstone structures.  Multi-faceted and shaped windows. The “minbar” , a raised platform for sermons, like a pulpit. Instead of steeples there are minarets, often the point of origin for the Call to Prayer. There are handsome domes. Worshippers sit or kneel on the prayer rug rather than in pews. What will be unfamiliar are the signs designating separate spaces for men and women, the shoe shelves and the place for ablution. I found the “mihrabs”,  ornamental niches marking the direction of Mecca, particularly beautiful. They consist of intricate mosaic tiles  of rich colors in classic geometric patterns and  tribal motifs of nature and fertility. From the minute  decorative details to the majestic sweep of  the colonnades, courtyards and ceremonial areas, this mosque is an architectural treasure. Enjoy your virtual tour!

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Women Speak Out



Dr. Amal Al-Malaki- Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Doha, Qatar

Dr. Al-Malaki is the first Qatari woman to teach in the vast, impressive complex called Education City in Doha. (See Post The Brightest Possible Future, May 7, 2012.) The quotation above is her answer to a question posed by the Lebanese reporter Rima Maktabi during an interview on CNN:  “What do you tell your female students?”  She goes on to say “My generation had limited dreams. The new generation is lucky…. can talk about anything …” Dr. Al-Malaki epitomizes two growing trends in the Middle East: the increasing visibility of women in positions of power and the emphasis on the value of educating girls.

Full disclosure. This is a hard post to write, which is why I have postponed doing it. The status of women in the Muslim world is an incredibly complicated subject, impossible to cover in a brief piece. And, as I have pointed out, I am neither a scholar nor an activist. More a pilgrim and an observer. I do not want to seem glib or to gloss over the harsh realities women face here in the Middle East. On the other hand, the purpose of this blog is to highlight seeds of change and sparks of hope and to move beyond stereotypes by offering sketches and vignettes. Also, I believe that it is important to highlight the heroic efforts of ordinary citizens to do good and make a difference in whatever way they can, even in the direst of circumstances, therein transcending apathy and fear.

Arab Muslim Women are indeed becoming more influential in the political, corporate and cultural landscapes. There are record high levels of women pursuing college and post-college degrees, in all fields, from the arts and humanities to engineering and medicine. Click on the links of the women mentioned here to learn more and to be inspired.

Several women stand out as leaders, in addition to Dr. Al-Malaki. The Minister of Foreign Trade of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikha Lubna al Qasimi, is a powerful voice in both business and government matters. She advocates a more flexible workplace culture for men and women who are eager to balance their personal and professional lives. Sheikha Lubna was recognized by Forbes Magazine, along with Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned of Qatar, the visionary founding director of Qatar Foundation and the force behind pretty much all of the education innovation and growth in this country, and Maha al-Ghunaim, vice chairman and managing director of Kuwait’s Global Investment House. As Shaikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, wife of the founder  and first president of the United Arab Emirates told the Gulf News, Nov. 29, 2009: “UAE’s women are no longer just claiming their rights, but are also exercising them.”

Here are a few of the gains Gulf Arab women have made recently. Omani women can now receive free government-allotted plots to build their own homes, just as men have for many years. Headscarves are no longer required for Kuwaiti lawmakers, and women there have won the right to obtain passports without their husbands’ consent. Qatar University College of Law has established the first legal clinic devoted to domestic violence, an initiative led by a graduate, Muna al- Marzouqi.  Also in Qatar, women serve in many important roles, such as Minister of Education and Head of Qatar’s Supreme Judicial Council.

As for education, a report from the Qatar Visitor website- “Qatari Women and Education”-on October 14, 2010  stated that the literacy rate of Qatari women is now 88.6%, one of the highest in  the Arab world. This is especially impressive when one considers that the literacy rate for the entire country was a staggering 0%  less than a century ago. ( See Post Back to the Future, January 17, 2012.) It is clear from publications featuring the writing of young Qatari women that they are feeling both enthusiastic and empowered.

“You never know where you might end up or if your wildest dreams might eventually come true.
You just have to believe in yourself and have faith in your dreams. I have full faith in mine.”

Al Jazzy Abdullah al Margahi, college student, Qatar (Qatari Voices– see Recommended Reading)

    “I’m a seventeen year-old lady who is studying medicine at Weill Cornelll Medical College in Qatar. I feel that I’m able to take   responsbility for my life.”   Nadya al Awainati   (Qatari Voices)

(Painting by DeeDee Dewar, outstanding artist and teacher at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha)

“Women’s roles in our nation have reached those of men if not exceeded them. The idea of men as the bread winners is not valid anymore. My sister, Kholoud, started a successful Spa business; my mother went out to teach children the Islamic religion in primary schools, while I became the CEO of a multibillion (dollar) company. I wish you (were) here to see how women have become almost equal to men in contributing to the growth of our country.”
Hissa Abdullah Ibrahim al Maadeed, B.A. in Business Administration, American University of Sharjah (Qatar Then & Now)

The fact remains that there is a disturbing contradiction in the treatment of  Muslim women. Publically they can be exalted and revered; privately they are often scorned and demeaned. Marriages are still arranged. In Saudi Arabia the rules governing women’s behavior are extremely strict. Saudi women cannot drive, are segregated from men, and cannot go outside without a male escort. They can be legally murdered by a male family member for violating their code of conduct.  On the same page of The Peninsula in Doha, there are two headlines: “Militants blow up girls school in Kyber”and “Karachi models defy Taliban threat with a glamorous fashion show.” For every gain, there is a step backward, it seems. Progress is slow, but every time I drive by this huge billboard near  my job at Education City, I feel encouraged.

“Give me a place to stand and I can move the world.”

It expresses the stamina and spirit of Muslim women in the Middle East. They are taking a stance and speaking out, claiming their place and their power.  May they shine on!                                  Next Post: Magnificent Mosque

Silent Sisterhood



Long Distance Relationship

With my digital point-and-shoot
From our balcony at dusk,
I zoom in on you,
I target you,
Two women arm-in-arm,
A mother and daughter,
Strolling on the beach,
Covered and veiled.
Freeze. Click.
I capture you.
Forgive my intrusion.
I am merely intrigued.
And consoled, too,
For your image offers
A hushed hope…

rgd Dubai, Palm Jumeirah,November 2008

As I wrote this poem, I was struck by the similarity between aiming- “shooting”- a camera and aiming a rifle- looking through the lens or scope to pinpoint unsuspecting individuals and claim them. This macabre connection would never have occurred to me anywhere else except here in the Middle East. Normally, photography is a pleasant, innocent diversion. Here, however, especially when photographing women, it takes on different overtones. You may have noticed that most of the images I have of women here are from the rear or from a distance. They regard being photographed as an invasion of privacy, so I have tread lightly.

But we women are always curious about each other. And these Muslim women are no different. As we pass, shopping in stores, primping in restrooms, and dining in restaurants, we respectfully nod greetings while surreptitiously taking in what details we can about appearance and demeanor. While these exchanges are silent, the bond we share as women is palpable.

 In a previous post (See  Five Frequently Asked QuestionsJanuary 23, 2012), I explained that in Dubai and Doha, where there are fewer restrictions, women can drive and go places alone. I often see groups of women out enjoying themselves together, sharing shisha pipes, laughing and all talking at once- the way female friends do!

 Unfortunately, while here I have yet to develop a genuine friendship with any Muslim women. What I know of them has come from books, films, scripted talks in both large and small gatherings, and personal observations. They certainly care about their appearance and for centuries have used all sorts of exotic, natural substances  to soften their skin and to accentuate their features. Freya Stark refers to their use of henna as a decorative cosmetic and as a hair dye. She describes how they bathed with the powdered leaf of the Sidr tree, a soap of clay and dried rose petals. Other  toiletries included saffron powder, frankincense, rainwater, pounded almonds and pearl dust. They traditionally used an Indian bark called “dairam” to darken their lips and, still today, they apply kohl (a powdered antimony sulphide) around their eyes for both the dramatic effect and for protection from the desert glare. Today Arab women combine these time-tested treatments with the vast array of beauty products available at the upscale stores in the Mall of the Emirates, Dubai Mall, and Vellegia Mall in Doha.  This is evident, given the crowds of elegant Arab women I see making purchases as I browse there myself!

The passage below, from a poem by Rosalind Clark, “To a Berber Woman”, gets at the essence of one of the most frequently debated issues about Muslim women: their clothing.

  I who may look on every land
Change my robe at will
Enter any door
Would learn from you, O veiled and silent one,
My sister,
Hidden in the black djellabah gown:
Are you a prisoner, shackled within
The shadow of enclosing Atlas towers
Or are you- more free than I?

What do clothes reveal? What do clothes conceal?  Must our clothing define us?  Can we avoid that?  Do Muslim women dress this way by force or by choice?  The phrase “fashion statement” is a loaded one, in any culture, but particularly here. And, in truth, the clothing does not tell the whole story of the woman inside by any means. You cannot make any assumptions about a Muslim woman’s beliefs or her relationship with her husband based on her clothing.

Young designers are being playful and adventurous in their creative work, appealing to Muslim women from the USA to Jordan and Egypt and the Arab Gulf. An October 14, 2010 article by Raja Abdulrahimin  in The Gulf Times magazine supplement, Time Out, from Qatar, “Pushing Cultural Boundaries with Designer Hijabs”, describes the popular head scarves crafted by Marwa Atik in southern California , of colorful silk, cotton, and chiffon, with fringes, ruffles, zippers, stitched patterns, and frayed edges. A blog called “hijabulous”, now known as “hipjabi”, highlights a new attitude toward conventional Muslim attire. Wear it, but spiff it up. Make it unique. Make it your own. I enjoy seeing the many forms of decoration added in Dubai and Doha, from sequins to embroidery. On Valentines Day, a young woman standing next to me in line at the grocery store (the ubiquitous French Carrefour) had sewn a red heart on the sleeve of her abaya!    The  mixed media art installation below, “Tipping Point,” by Yara El-Sherbini, was featured in the Bastakia Art Fair, Dubai, 2009. 

Another hot topic is how much hair  and face to cover. High profile women, such as Queen Rania of Jordan, Princess Hiya of Dubai, Her Highness Sheikha Hind, daughter and political advisor to Emir al Thani of Qatar, as well as his wife, the powerful  Sheika Mozah of Qatar rarely (never?)  cover their faces in public and always leave some of their heads uncovered, except in mosques. This is controversial, even risky. They are ferociously criticized by conservative Islamists. Whether or not the veil is worn for cultural and personal reasons or religious ones has become a volatile issue. Queen Rania stirred up antagonism when she told an Italian newspaper in 2007 that imposing the hijab on women actually goes against the teachings of Islam. On the other side there are Muslim women from France to Egypt who resent being told they cannot wear headscarves. When Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, a 1000-year old Islamic university in Cairo, commanded a student in an  all-girls’ school he was visiting to remove her niqab because it represents “too extreme an interpretation of Islamic modesty” (The Economist, October 17, 2009) , there was outrage from both liberals and conservatives.

“Flocks of gray birds flit aimlessly….the restless souls of women, says Turkish legend.”
Gertrude Bell, Persian Pictures, 1894

There is a fair amount of ritual around the first donning of the abaya. These have been recounted in several excellent coming-of-age and rite-of-passage books written by Muslim women. (See the Recommended Reading at the top of this blog.)  Usually the writers are speaking out because they dislike the transition from free-spirited child to repressed young woman, and they are rebelling against the double standards. There are many women, however, who welcome this symbol of adulthood. Watching families shopping, it is easy to see how little girls, wearing western-style frocks or jeans, look up to their mothers, mysterious and regal in their long gowns. There is a certain glamour in the abaya. Indeed the formality of these women can make the more casual dress of westerners seem shabby by comparison. An American woman I met here remarked: “These Qatari and Emirati women do not walk. They glide. They float.”    Indeed they do move with grace and dignity, a sense of ease, aware of their beauty.  Their modesty enhances their allure, thus their power.

“An increasing amount of Qatari women are putting on the nikab and abayat raas out of personal choice. I know some Qatari women who put on the nikab even though their husbands disapprove of it! Wearing the nikab or ghishwa for many women is liberating. There is an unwritten rule about women who cover their faces- they are not to be touched, disrespected or harassed. Covering the face in Qatar gives women a higher level of respect and protection from men than uncovered women- and means they can go about their business without being bothered.” from the “Qatar Visitor” website

A different view. I am tempted to pick apart the hidden messages in this comment, the underlayers- forgive the pun. But I will take it at face value. Devout Muslim women (and men, of course) do insist that the protections put in place for them are “to promote our liberty and safety, not our submission.” This comment was made by a speaker at a gathering I attended in Dubai.  She enjoys a certain degree of anonymity and not being hung up on having clothes  express her identity. These are public clothes, however; inside the privacy of their homes, they can wear whatever they like.

There are as many issues woven into this subject as their are threads in an intricate Persian tapestry…

So, greetings my silent foreign friend. I am curious, but I will not judge you. I do not want to impose my way on yours. I can only look into your eyes and hope that you are safe. I, too, am a woman,  a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother. I can relate to you. And I wonder, which of us is more free?

 Bastakia Art Fair, Dubai- “They Welcomed Us With Flowers”– March 2010      Curated by Asmaa Al-Shabibi    “My Prayer Is…” prayers by 100 women
Next Post: Women Speak Out


“You go away for a long time and return a different person- you never come all the way back.”
Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari

One more post will be devoted to our trip to Jordan, this time focusing on the ancient Roman city of Jerash just north of Amman.  And, again, the text will be a simple overview, as the pictures below tell the story.

After living in the Arabian Gulf, it was interesting to travel in the part of the Arab world known as the Levant.  The term “levant” is derived from the French word meaning “rising.”   This was considered the point where the sun rises. The English adopted the word in the 16th century and it has stuck. After World War I, the French Mandates of Syria and Lebanon were referred to as the Levant States. After World War II, the term came to include the surrounding regions of Cyprus, Iraq, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan.

The geography in this part of the Arab world is dramatically different from the Gulf States of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.  While the latter areas are arid expanses of desert, the Levant is in the Fertile Crescent, the so-called “cradle of civilization.”  Although there are plenty of rugged and remote desert areas here, there are also rich farmlands, with vineyards and orchards, and abundant water sources flowing from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

The Levant Arabs are primarily Muslim, although there are some cultural differences between them and the Gulf Arabs. There are fewer nomads moving in caravans. Most of their homes are simple, flat-roofed concrete and mud structures. More marriages are monogamous.

Jordan itself has had a relatively progressive and open government in the Arab world, with a relatively functional constitutional monarchy, a peace treaty with Israel, and more liberal policies toward educating girls. To get a full picture of Jordan’s recent history, I recommend the book Leap of Faith by Lisa Halaby, or Queen Noor, as she is now known, the American woman who became the fourth wife of the late King Hussein.  Of course, it is a biased view of the accomplishments of her husband, but I learned a great deal about Jordan from this book.  It is a really good read.  Her story is intriguing, as at a very young age she adapted to her new home and became a public figure on the world stage during exceptionally volatile times.

“Some of the dissonance was cultural- the difference between a western sense of privacy and personal space and an Eastern emphasis on communal identity and space.” Queen Noor

I was profoundly affected by her simple comment: “The enemy has a face.”

Walking through the valleys and hills of Jordan, looking across the Dead Sea toward Israel and Jerusalem, standing atop Mount Nebo where the prophet Moses saw “The Promised Land”, one cannot help but be deeply moved. So many events, affecting each of us, directly and indirectly, regardless of our faith, have occurred here. You are definitely in the center – indeed the vortex- of a powerful, Holy Land. From the majestic vistas of the vast Wadi Rum, where echoes of Lawrence of Arabia reverberate among the towering sand dunes, to the ancient city of Jerash in the north, where Roman families lived centuries ago, Jordan is a country overflowing with historical, cultural and spiritual significance.

“In the best travel, disconnection is a necessity. Concentrate on where you are.”
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Paul Theroux

Take a walk back 2000 years ago through Jerash, one of the largest and most well preserved sites of Roman architecture outside Italy, as you browse the gallery below.     Next Post: Silent Sisterhood

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