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.

Archive for the category “Expat Life”

The Middle East: My Questions

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“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


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

Nuanced Numbers

“Time is made visible, and it moves as the landscape moves.”

Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express

 I like the above quotation by Paul Theroux. It is a lovely, simple take on time and space.  Huge concepts, to be sure, in both a literal, figurative  and metaphysical sense. This is an elaboration of Point #8 in my June 4 Post: The ExPat-RePat-MultiPat Life. Know Your Math Facts. I did not fully embrace the power and poetry of mathematics until I started this “transpat” life. Now I understand that we are thinking mathematically constantly, all day long, without even realizing it.  We know that we are dealing with math when we go on shopping excursions, discuss budgets and decipher recipes. That is obvious. But beyond that: planning schedules and trips; arranging room and office decor; determining wardrobes, agendas, conference seating,  and party menus; navigating traffic, crowds and ski slopes. Music. Architecture. All of that is mathematical thinking. The list is endless. Time and Space.

When you travel abroad, this  awareness is intensified. Even if you have a smartphone physically attached to you at all times, you still just need to know your math facts. Period. Daily decoding of distance, time, and currency is required. Most countries (all countries?) outside the United States use the metric number system.  Therefore, walking on a treadmill, getting on a scale, determining volume, and estimating distance require some serious calculating…. or you are going to be deluding yourself that you now weigh much less and can run much further much faster, among other things. Understanding that 30 degrees centigrade does not require a coat is helpful as well.

Time is especially mind-boggling. There have been many instances when the five of us in our family have been in five different time zones. As I imagine my children living their lives, and as we plan telephone calls and video chats, numbers are constantly dancing around in my head. Conversations tend to go like this: What time will it be Doha time when you arrive back in the United States? What time will our plane take off from Dubai in EST?  When shall we make the dinner reservation UK time? What time will you change planes in China time?  –It is inevitable to goof up occasionally. Sometimes it can be frustrating, like missing a conference call. Other times it is amusing. Once when returning to Doha from Beijing, the time zone on my phone, which usually converts automatically, did not do so, and I did not double check it. I went to bed at 10:00 p.m. in Doha, my internal clock way out of whack, and set the phone alarm for 7:00 a.m. The alarm went off, I got up, dressed and went about various tasks, noting that it was an unusually dark morning for Qatar. Then I checked my  (old fashioned) watch. It was 2:30 a.m.!

Dealing with money can be downright intimidating. Get ready to memorize different exchange rates and to multiply and divide. Yes, there are calculators on our smartphones, but, really, can we always be pulling those out to get the correct amount? It can be rather awkward, especially in  Middle Eastern souqs and  Chinese wet markets. My husband points out, righty, that I tend to be rather loose with decimals. I prefer working with whole numbers. Once I know three general amounts-  $25, $50 and $100- in another currency, I am good to go (to spend…) In my view, learning how to estimate (“round off”)  in 5th grade, thereby gaining “basic number sense” , in edu-speak, is the most valuable functional arithmetic skill. So here is how my mind works. With UAE Dirhams and Qatari Riyals, divide by 4.  Thus, 100 dirhams  or Q Riyals is approximately $25. With  Hong Kong Dollars by 7.  With Chinese Yuan  or Renminbi (RMB) by 6. And- my favorite- the Mongolian Togrot or Tigrik (MNT) by 1300 . Yes. That is correct. 1300!  So 133, 815 MNT equals  around $100US.

One night soon after arriving in Ulaanbaatar, I was eating lunch and, when presented with a bill of  MNT$22, 500, I momentarily panicked and wondered how I was going to justify such a lavish meal. A cup of tea and something resembling chicken nuggets. My first reaction was that- wow, food is expensive here! I might have to stick to water and yogurt. Then, when my husband enlightened me, I decided to ignore rounding off altogether. I was accustomed to dividing by 4 or 6 or 7. But by 1300? No. Way too much trouble. So in Mongolia, I just look at the amount on any bill and convert it to a tiny number. That works, too…

But, of course, math is much more than about calculation, and this appreciation is deepened by travel as well.  Math is about the mysterious repeating patterns in nature, the miraculous reality of trans-continental flight, and the disorienting sense of  losing and gaining “real” time within a 24-hour period. It is about witnessing the sunrise and the sunset within a few hours. It is about being one of dozens of strangers in a 8 by  10 foot space on a subway and being one of  over 22 million in a city. It is about seeing vast stretches of forever and backward into centuries on a desert. It is about feeling that the world has grown paradoxically both bigger and smaller, but so have we. We are mere dust specks within the cosmos: we are nano-seconds within infinity.  Yet we can move miles in minutes. And our sense of self has  been expanded simply  by  knowing we are a part of something enormous.  As Zen Buddhists explain, we are inextricably linked to everyone and everything. I am reminded of the lovely passage in Tuesdays with Morrie  by Mitch Albom about the little wave being part of the ocean.  And the exuberant  words of Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself”:   “I am large. I contain multitudes.”  ….. What a magic carpet ride!

Unsung Heroes

“Furthermore, we have not even to risk the journey alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”
Joseph Campbell,
The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Numerous people have influenced  me in the Middle East. Some have become friends.  Some have lifted my spirits after a kind gesture or a brief exchange—meeting at  some random intersection point along the way. Others remain total strangers because I have simply observed them in passing.  I have learned from them all. They are part of who I am now. The elderly South Asian woman in the security line at the airport, carrying her belongings in a plastic grocery bag, proud and defiant. She would not want anyone feeling sorry for her. And the Qatari man sitting next to me on the plane with his wife. When he heard me decline a meal, he purchased one for me, considering it rude for him to dine in front of me when I was not eating.  The distinguished Sudanese man, who has lived in Doha for thirty years and shepherded me through various bureaucratic hoops to obtain certain required certificates. I complimented him on his English. His modest reply was that he is still not very good at it. I explained that I only know about three phrases in Arabic, like “insha’allah” ( if God wills…) He replied that, in fact, that is the only phrase  I need to know ! A Muslim man who appeared to be from Oman, judging from his clothing, seeming ill at ease on the airport shuttle bus, anxiously rolling his prayer beads in his hands. I wanted to tell him that I was nervous, too!  We are all in this together.

The people who have inspired me the most have been the unassuming ones. The Filipino workers at the salons, the cafeterias, and hotels: Voltaire, Janine, Edna, Lou,  and Evangeline. Abi, from Ghana, who carries herself like a  goddess, like royalty. I see her chiseled, elegant profile in many African sculptures now.  There she is. Queen Abi. The porters at our apartment in Doha from Nepal and Sri Lanka. Cheerful. Courteous. Diligent.

There are two men I would like to single out, who have moved me deeply.  The first is a Pakistani man, Saeed, who works in my husband’s office in Dubai, doing random errands and overseeing the mailings.  People totally depend on him. He is so dignified and humble it makes me feel almost tearful with tenderness toward him. Like every person I have met in the “service industry” over here, he does not expect to be tipped, only accepting it when forced to, and he takes pride in what he does. He is deferential, almost to an extreme, bowing and avoiding direct, sustained eye contact. I had vowed on arriving here to look directly at every person, male and female, rather than treat them as invisible. In the western world this is considered friendly, a gesture of respect. Now I realize that not everyone shares this sentiment. Such a gaze can seem intrusive, an invasion of personal space. Is it a challenge?  Demeaning? Does it signify hostility or haughtiness? Saeed  taught me to temper my rather brash American straight-forwardness with a more subdued manner. I am indebted to him, and I hold him in high esteem. I will treasure the image of his shy smile and gentle ways. He is as noble as a prince

An Egyptian named Ashraf, drove me around Dubai  from time to time and took my husband, older daughter, and me on a road trip to Oman. Ashraf is relatively conversant in English and has adopted some western ways while maintaining his identity as a devout Muslim.  When he left me somewhere to shop, to visit a friend, or on some cultural excursion he would often use the time to go to the nearest mosque to pray. He wears western attire and reads English newspapers.  It is remarkable how these expats from South Asia and other parts of the Arab world have learned English on their own, without benefit of formal instruction.  Ashraf exuded about the heritage and beauty of his native Egypt and enjoyed telling me places to visit if I ever travel there.  As with most workers from other Arab countries or from Asia, his family is not with him. He has a wife and two daughters back at home, whom he is supporting through his work in Dubai. He sees them for a few days once a year. Successful drivers need several key skills and attributes, not the least of which is patience.  They spend hours waiting: waiting in clogged traffic jams, while their passengers content themselves in the back seat with their Smartphones and reading material or in conversation with a companion; waiting for their bosses to finish their business or their social engagements, sometimes late into the night. Ashraf works long hours, without complaining. Clearly he feels fortunate to be working at all. His calm, self-possessed, gracious manner evokes admiration, even awe. There is the strength of centuries within him.—–Since getting to know Saeed and Ashraf, I will never look at the world the same way again.


















Our Global Family:Glimpses

“The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small.”

Mother Teresa

I am in transit at present, so this post  simply contains photographs. They speak for themselves.

Enjoy the gallery below!        Next Post: Our Global Family: More Glimpses

The Expat-Multipat-Repat Life

“Everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place.”
Barbara Kingsolver, Poisonwood Bible

Since I spend several months at a time in different countries, I am not a classic expatriate. I am more of a multipat, who repatriates twice a year, and thus am in a constant state of adjusting and readjusting, with ripples of culture shock on each exit, entry and re-entry.  My husband qualifies more legitimately as  an expat/multipat because he is away from the United States for longer periods of time. So I made up a new word to define myself: “transpat”, individual in a fluid state of geographical transit and transition.  Add to that constantly shifting status the fact that my husband’s work entails temporary relocations and a fair amount of travel. We are always in a state of limbo.  The revolving door syndrome. Thus, the theme of the photos on this Post, taken on various trips. (Drag your cursor along the bottom right of each photo to read the label.)

Doors and corridors from everywhere  to anywhere. Just keep on movin’. So, as I reflect on what we have learned from being in flux thus far , I will share some highlights. These are the little pep talks I give myself on a regular basis! Welcome to my internal dialogue.

1. Accept being in limbo. We actually never know what is going to happen next anyway.

2.Travel lightly and accumulate little. It is tiring to carry a heavy load.

3. Pay close attention to everything around you: the people, the architecture, the artistic and decorative details, the customs, the language, the music, the natural beauty. This will help when you are spending endless hours waiting in lines, stuck in traffic jams, and delayed at airports.  And you will never be bored.

4.Develop patience. See part two of #3. Plus, getting worked up about things is a waste of good energy. And you NEED your energy.

5. Be flexible and prepared for change.  Expect detours, technical glitches and surprises. Things might not work out the way you planned.

6.Communicate clearly and understand that every interaction is an act of diplomacy. You are an ambassador. Figure out what you want to say and be careful how you say it. Not so easy…

7.Refrain from making assumptions about people you meet.  It is limiting. We tend to stereotype more than we think, and when we do, we are cheating everyone…especially ourselves.

8.Know your math facts.  We are thinking mathematically incessantly when we travel. (This actually requires a whole separate post. Stay tuned.)

9.Relationships are fleeting, so cherish them. Honor them. People come along…and before you know it, they are gone.

10. Ask for help.  Get over yourself. Save yourself a lot of trouble.

11. When someone invites you on an outing, go. This is no time to hold back. Or to be socially lazy.

12. Soak up the adventures that every day offers. You might not have another chance.

All aspects of life as a “transpat” are in high definition. Our surroundings, our daily logistics, and our relationships. Suddenly you are more dependent  than ever on those closest to you as well as strangers- and on yourself.  And everything seems harder. Getting around, talking with people, making purchases, decoding tacit cues, cooking, making telephone calls. On and on.  But I am not complaining….

This experience also makes me feel wide awake, fully alive and engaged. And, as I try to adopt my own 12-Step Program above, I recognize that this so-called transpat life is just the way LIFE actually is. No matter where you are. I am simply more appreciative of that now. And this is a privilege.                        Next Post: Souq Waqif



Lessons from My Students Part 3

I hope I will not disappoint (any)one who has trusted me and gave (given) me full confidence to send me to this wonderful university and who  (has) help(ed) me (with) useful tips to supplement my career and to show me the right way. Both of my parents are (did) not complete there (their) study, so it (they) will (be) proud when I join (the) university …I will be the only one (of) my brothers (to get) a university degree and (it) will be (a) really happy (day) for me and I want to make them happy.”
Basim  prospective student, Education City, Qatar

 (Corrections in parentheses are mine.)

So these seven men and I carry on together. (See May 14 and May 21 Posts: Lessons from My Students Parts 1 and 2) We use the texts and other ESL instructional materials provided, and I improvise with my own worksheets, writing assignments, and reading comprehension exercises, based on their interests and skill levels. In class, we try all kinds of approaches, including the old tried-and-true ones, like reading aloud in a circle; describing our weekends, families, and daily schedules; giving short spontaneous speeches on various topics. My supervisor, Mary, is a technology whiz and, with her help, we watch and analyze TED talks together and complete listening quizzes after watching simple cartoon narratives. They make steady progress. And my own learning curve is sky high.

It is the informal exchanges that we have, however, that stimulate us the most. One day Siraj complains about taking timed tests. They make him nervous. He feels that he has to rush and make superficial choices. The scores do not reflect what he has mastered, what he understands. “In my profession,” he remarks, “it is necessary to take my time to make wise judgments. I like to consider all options. Hurrying would be dangerous.” He sees these standard assessments as unfair. Good point, Siraj.

One day Abdul asks me to explain the meaning of step-sister and half-sister. After I do, they all jump in saying they just don’t get it. Their fathers take new wives and sometimes their mothers even remarry. They all live together. They think of their new siblings as simply brothers and sisters. They call their new mothers and fathers aunts and uncles. No big deal. “We are all just one big family.” An over-simplification, perhaps, but, thought provoking nevertheless…

As my departure for the United States for the summer draws near, the students want to put the books away and “just talk.” I am curious – about what? Certain topics, such as religion and the royal family are off limits. I welcome this opportunity for dialogue, but I will follow their lead.  They are never critical of the United States. In fact, they are unfailingly respectful and genuinely open as they ask about our political system and about what they perceive to be multiple stereotypes about the Arab world and Muslims. We unravel some of the misunderstandings about our respective cultures. These are smooth flowing, relaxed conversations. It is times like this when I wonder why there is such violence, hatred, and fear in the world. But I cannot dwell there. Each of us can only make peace in our own small ways, wherever we are.

Arab Spring is in full gear at this point, and they are constantly paying close attention to the news on their smart phones and other sources. Although there is essentially no unrest in Qatar, where the citizens are comfortable financially, united in their faith, and proud of their rapidly developing country, they are aware of the implications of these revolutions.

Journal entry: March 15, 2011: “A Qatari journalist for Al Jazeerah who was shot by Qadafi loyalists in Libya was a neighbor of one of my students.  He is very upset. This group is against Qadafi. They are excited about the Arab Spring, inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt. On the other hand, they are distressed by the conflict in Bahrain. Too close. And they are all Sunni.  Can’t discuss this.”

Hani has been reading as much as he can about post-tsunami Japan. He is fascinated by how the country has handled the devastation. Especially how there has been no looting whatsoever. He shares with us a news story where a reporter tried to make it easy for some Japanese to steal his obviously full wallet. No one did. Dozens of people looked at it and left it alone. One finally turned it in to a train station attendant.  We are all uplifted by this.

On the day before I leave, they ask my opinion about Muslims having more than one wife. I respond by asking them questions, so I can better understand their take on this volatile subject. I will elaborate on this in a future post about women in the Middle East.  We end this conversation laughing and laughing as Shihad expounds on the absurdly high costs of modern weddings in Qatar. “This has become a competition among our families now.  Ridiculous!  Extravagant! What has happened to the old simple ceremonies?” Does this sound familiar?

 “Finally, I assure the university that I will share enthusiastically my practical experience of the last eleven years with my colleagues and teachers which will help us to grow together. I am sure that the excellent quality education system in the University will promote my career. The students here are very helpful and this helps new students to achieve their requirements seamlessly. From my heart I hope to be able to overcome the difficult stages of entry to this university and graduate with an excellent performance.”

After the last class, Naseem stays behind to tell me how kind Americans were to him when he accompanied his father to the United States for medical treatment.  Not just in the medical setting, but everywhere, as they struggled to get around. “They did not ignore us or look down on us. Total strangers took time to patiently give us directions and ask how they could help.” The surgery did not work. His father died. But Naseem remains grateful for how they both were treated with such dignity. And I am grateful, as well, for being an American, and also for Naseem, as he gives me his amber prayer beads so I can feel their warmth. And for Abbas, Siraj, Basim, Abdul, Shihad, and Hani…and all that I have learned from them.  Next Post: The Expat-Multipat-Repat Life

Lessons from My Students Part 2

“Building good citizen (s) is the aim of each country that plan (s) to develop itself and provide  (a) good life for its people. Education is the main and only road to have good citizen (s). The more the country provides (an) advanced education system, the more the country achieves progress in all fields.”
Abbas , prospective university student
Education City, Qatar

(Corrections in parentheses are mine.)

Once again, in this post, I am protecting the privacy of my students. These are not their real names. (See May 14 Post: Lessons from My Students Part 1)

So here I am with my remaining seven students. Abbas, father of a four-year-old boy and twins – boy and girl- aged two. He is serious, hard working, and earnest, often asking the questions that fuel further learning for the entire group. Siraj has two boys and a little girl, whom he calls “his heart”. Siraj is a charmer, our class comedian, with an open and endearing manner. Very witty, ambitious, quite anxious about his skills in English and his prospects academically. He calls me “Teacher”, and I call him “Student”, in an on-going playful banter. Quiet, mysterious and dignified Naseem is the only unmarried one in the group. He has very little confidence in his ability in English and tends to miss class often. His deep, expressive eyes speak volumes.  I get the feeling he is overwhelmed with his life in general these days. Basim has an easy smile and a sweet disposition. He has two young sons. A first he stays virtually silent, as if he cannot believe he will ever be able to utter a word of English- much less read and write it- but as the weeks move along, he speaks out more and more, and smiles more and more. The most confident student in the class is Abdul, who puts in many hours revising his essays and taking practice tests in both reading and listening comprehension. At first, he politely rebuffs me, as if he needs no teacher. He is proud and intense, the father of two daughters. As the class proceeds, he relaxes, participates more, and begins to ask for help. This pleases me because his contributions to our class conversations are helpful.  Hani is the cool dude in the group.  Another charmer.  On a couple occasions, he arrives in class in jeans or some neat, casual outfit, which always throws me, as I am accustomed to seeing him clothed in Arab attire. He is very smart, a quick study, deceptively so. One of those students who appears to be distracted, then excels on an assessment.  Hani is warm, kind, clearly a leader, and totally devoted to his three young children, sometimes showing me their photos on his iphone. And, finally, there is Shihad, the oldest of the group at 37. Indeed he seems like “an elder” to me as well, with his direct, intelligent gaze and his no nonsense, mature approach to all assignments. The others respect him and look up to him as a sort of spokesman for the group, and so do I.

Finally, I could pave my way to my dream to study to get a degree in my favorite subject at one of the most well known universities. I believe that this will give me a tremendous opportunity for my future career. I am committed to being a student at University. I promise to study hard  and do my best in order to encourage (other) young Qatari (s) to join  (a) university and also to be an ideal example of my company. I am sure that the excellent quality education system in the University will be very helpful to my career and my life. Also (it will) contribute (to) the growth of education in Qatar and … the well being of the people here.”


These are grown men in a traditionally male-dominated culture. They are vulnerable in this class, however, and I am aware of that, so I tread lightly. I cannot exactly tell them what to do in the same way I would the American middle schoolers I have taught (although how much even they complied is certainly debatable!) I am with these seven students for as many as five hours a day, several days a week. Everyday there is a break to observe the Call to Prayer- and to smoke and drink coffee. Sometimes these breaks extend to 45 minutes. After a couple weeks of this disappearing act, I decide to exert a bit more discipline and control in the group. One day, as they leave, I say, “Okay, gentlemen. Take your break, but be back here at exactly 3:00 o’clock.” Within a split second, Siraj responds, “3:00 P.M. or A.M.?!” –At that moment, I know we are all going to get along just fine…

Next Post: Lessons from My Students Part 3

Lessons from My Students Part 1

 “Education for a New Era”- Mission of Qatar Supreme Education Authority

(Please note: I am deliberately vague in this post to protect the privacy of my students. These are not their real names.)

 It is an early October day, and I am on my way to my first day of teaching at a university in the vast Education City compound in Doha.  (See May 7 Post: “The Brightest Possible Future”.) I am dressed in my normal attire here- a cotton skirt and blouse, slipper-like flat shoes, with a long  pashmina draped over my shoulders for warmth in the air conditioned spaces and for protection from the blazing sun- as well as a head covering (rarely necessary, but always a good idea to have here, just in case.) The sheer scale of the building I am entering is intimidating. It takes me a while to locate the door I am supposed to enter. When I do find it, it is so immense that, once again in this part of the world, I feel  disoriented, like Alice in Wonderland, suddenly a midget. I enter, get security clearance from the guard, and text Mary, who hired me, that I am here, ready to begin. Mary comes down and escorts me through a maze of massive corridors around majlis courtyards through a cozy study area with high school and college kids snuggled up close together, studying,  and chatting (finally- something more familiar) to my classroom- huge and modern, where my students are waiting.  I take a deep breath and walk in.


Even though the classes at these universities are co-educational, my group happens to be 16 young Muslim men.  One young Muslim woman joins us for a few classes to prepare for a certain test. (I love looking at her shoes under her abaya. One day bright pink Sketchers, the next day black patent spike heels.) My students, age 17-37, are divided into two groups. Some are being groomed for positions in the Ministry of the Interior (MOI). They therefore must pass certain exams in English. The others are employees in a local company who are participating in a pilot program. They started working right after high school and have distinguished themselves as highly capable, with leadership potential. In order to be promoted, however, they must earn college degrees in their field. Their company is giving them an extended paid leave to gain the English skills they need to pass the entrance examination to this university. The company is subsidizing this training and will pay for their entire undergraduate education, if admitted. Pretty impressive.


My brain must go into high gear now.  Mary is rapidly explaining sophisticated equipment, new technology applications and software to me, along with school procedures, schedules, and more. I need to learn 16 Arab names, pronto. (See February  13 Post: What’s In A Name?) The men are busy at their computers, writing essays. I decide to go around and introduce myself to each one of them and jot down their names and some notes. They are polite. A bit distant and formal. Quite dignified in their long white gowns and headscarves, which here are called thobes and gaytras, although there are many terms used for these. I can see immediately that their written English is  very weak, and their spoken English is not much better.


Over the next few days, I get to know them a little better.  The 7 MOI students are more confident in their English skills, as they have just finished high school. As I observe them and interact with them, they are, I realize, like adolescents anywhere in the world. Posturing and pretending a bit. There is an Alpha Group, a Wannabe Group, and some Outsiders. One student, Mohammed, is studious and aloof. Another, Rafan, is sassy and suave, constantly texting on his Smartphone. Sometimes they wear baseball hats instead of gaytras. A couple even wear jeans on occasion. I learn that there are no strict rules regarding men’s clothing. They are taking the practice IELTS and TOEFL Exams at testing sites in Qatar and Bahrain regularly to prepare for the university admission test. They make decent scores, and gradually no longer need the class.  

Barkat is a lively, charming fellow who enjoys showing me photographs of his older siblings, currently studying in the USA. He remains a few weeks longer than the others. It becomes clear that he is not so carefree  and blase as he has previously appeared. He wants to ACE the test. And he does.  A few days later he waltzes into the classroom to surprise me.  It is his birthday and he excitedly shows me a picture of his present- a new car, a Toyota. At this point I no longer see Barkat’s thobe and gaytra. I only see his infectious smile and bright eyes and hope that he will prosper in his career in the esteemed Ministry of the Interior…. and in his adult life. 

The MOI students have taught me that all teenagers, no matter what culture- no matter how wealthy and privileged- no matter how protected and scripted their lives are- have the same vulnerabilities, frustrations, fears, and  aspirations. They long to be taken seriously and to belong.

 So now I am left with the 9 working men, who are still struggling mightily with their English.  Over the next few months, we have quite a journey together…

Next Post: My Students Teach Me, Part Two














“The Brightest Possible Future”

“Yes, reform is still young,
but our students and teachers are giving us something invaluable…
the brightest possible future.”
Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, Qatar

Drive onto the over 5,500 acre campus called Education City in Doha, Qatar, and you will be transported into what seems like a fantasy land-  almost a stage set- carefully manicured, with magnificent, bold architecture, striking monuments to the importance of education. (See slide show at end of post.)  And you will see these GIGANTIC inspirational signs at every turn:



Slogans that capture the spirit of our own American educational “Best Practices”. Eloquent, empowering messages. As an educator, I feel a sense of hope whenever I enter this unique compound.  Here I am, in the desert, in miniscule Qatar in the Arabian Gulf, watching Muslim girls and boys taking classes together, where less than a hundred years ago the literacy rate was 0% (see January 17 Post: Back to the Future) and where even a decade ago coeducational classes were unthinkable.

There is a strong commitment to education in both Dubai and Doha.  More than 50% of the population is under 25. As both these countries are catapulting into the international arena, they realize how critical it is for their youth to be well educated.  So, in typical fashion, they are moving at a rapid speed. They have a lot of catching up to do!

“Education and entrepreneurship are the twin underpinnings for building a safe world.”
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Dubai

Qatar, under the brilliant leadership of, Sheikha Mozah, the second wife of Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, has a particularly ambitious, bold and well-articulated plan for education. And they are making it happen.  Historically, well-to-do Qataris went abroad to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees.  Qatari leaders realized that it would make more sense to bring the educational institutions to Qatar, so all of their young people could pursue higher degrees without having to travel and leave their families. The Emir decided to dedicate land and to fund the building of  state-of-the-art facilities toward this purpose. The vast complex, Education City, contains facilities from primary school through university and post-graduate study, including the Academic Bridge Program to support high school students needing further preparation to pursue advanced degrees. It is an innovative and effective model for international education.

The following universities were selected to become part of this enterprise, each having a special focus, which avoids the problems of competition for a small pool of applicants: Carnegie Mellon (Math and Information Technology), Cornell (Science and Pre-Med), Georgetown (International Relations and Pre-Law), Northwestern (Journalism), Texas A & M (Engineering), and Virginia Commonwealth (Arts). Each university operates independently, in collaboration with Qatar Foundation, which oversees the entire effort. The universities bring over their own teachers, staff, and administrators. The curricula are the same as the ones in the USA. All classes are co-educational and conducted in English. The students are predominantly Qatari, although there are some from other Arab countries and a few from the United States. Admission standards are the same, and these Arab-speaking students must take the same tests, in English, that their American counterparts do. In addition, there are well-designed collaborations with local businesses and institutions in both the public and the private sector. The entire city of Doha is rising to the challenge.

As part of the country’s commitment to serious dialogue and a lively intellectual climate, these universities sponsor internationally renowned speakers on a variety of timely and controversial topics: journalists such as Robert Fiske, religious scholars such as Karen Armstrong, technology experts, artists, architects, Nobel scientists, authors, diplomats and more. In addition, the Qatar Foundation sponsors the Doha Debates, held right in Education City, featured on CNN. They tackle the toughest contemporary issues, including the  political tensions in the Middle East. Several nights a week here we can choose to attend a lecture by a distinguished speaker. And there are always as many Qataris in the audience as expats- if not more.

“…to support Qatar on its journey
from a carbon economy to a knowledge economy
by unlocking human potential.”
Mission Statement, Qatar Foundation,

I had the tremendous privilege of teaching Qatari students at one of these universities, which will be the subject of my next post: Lessons from My Students Part 1.  Now, enjoy a 2-minute tour of Education City!

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