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 “Images”

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


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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“Rose-Red City Half As Old As Time”: Petra


“…to lose oneself in mystery and wonder while, like a wave lifting us into new seas, the history of the world develops around us.” 

         Freya Stark, The Valleys of the Assassins

The title of this post comes from a poem by John Burgon in 1845 describing the legendary lost city of Petra, nestled in a canyon, an immense desert wadi, in southern Jordan. It is one of the most enchanting places I have ever been, a glorious cross-section of ancient and natural history, archaeology, anthropology, geology, and architecture. Words will simply not capture it, so take a couple minutes to watch the slide show below after this brief overview.

“Petra” means stone in Greek. The entire city is carved out of multi-colored sandstone, marbleized with ripples and waves of endless shades of lavender, mauve, lilac, sage, topaz, ochre, sienna, salmon, bone, brown, and charcoal. I was mesmerized by the magical, shimmering beauty of this stone. Nature’s palette.


“…from the rock as if by magic grown,

eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!”- Burgon

The most common way to enter Petra is along a “siq” (shaft), a narrow corridor carved out between towering rock cliffs.  At the end of the siq, through a mere sliver of an opening, the spectacular façade of a monumental building appears. This is The Treasury, so called because it is thought that the urn at the top holds the riches of the Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus. As you wander through the valley, you see multiple levels of cave dwellings, temples and tombs chiseled into the mountains. Votive niches, water channels, cisterns, sanctuaries, storerooms, burial chambers, obelisks, pediments, facades, columns, bas-relief sculpture, inscriptions, pilasters, friezes, Ionic capitals, and terracotta pipes. There are the remains of a spectacular 5000-plus-seat theater and a temple along a colonnaded boulevard. The massive “Ed Deir” or “monastery”, a pilgrimage site and gathering place for Christian monks, sits at the top of 800 rock steps cut right into the mountain.  Well worth the climb! Petra contains a synthesis of decorative elements, a mixture of influences, from both east and west, as seen in the architecture. One wonder leads to another. It is breathtaking.

Nowadays Petra is primarily a tourist destination. Only a few Bedouin reside there. It is easy to time travel beyond the ruins, into the distant past, imagining the artisans and laborers who built this place and the families who lived and worked here. The city’s roots can be traced back to the Neolithic era, 7000 years BCE.  As an important agriculture center and trade route, it has been home to Edomites, Nabateans, Gulf Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Palestinians. It was destroyed by earthquakes during Byzantine times, essentially deserted in the 14th century, and never restored.  An intrepid Swiss traveler, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, rediscovered it in 1812.

The more recent world of Petra is vividly described in the book Married to a Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen, which I highly recommend.  This is the true account of the New Zealand author’s life with Mohammad Manaja, whom she met in Petra in 1978 and later married- their three children and extended family, their daily routines, the challenges they faced, the joys they shared. A life of austerity and grace, sacrifice and celebration, reverence and nobility.


“In the morning we use the star water to bathe the baby in.”    van Geldermalsen


“Where poverty is borne with so much dignity that its existence is scarce noticed: where manners are so gentle that the slave and the chieftain are spoken to with equal courtesy….the immaterial alone is essential.”

 – Freya Stark, Baghdad Sketches

Enjoy the slide show below!     Next Post: Jerash

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Our Global Family: More Glimpses

“We are now invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds, and join the general dance.”

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

I am no longer in transit… but I am in re-entry mode! So here are more photographs. All of these were taken in Beijing. Enjoy the slideshow below.

Next Post: Unsung Heroes

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