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 “Middle East”

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.

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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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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

“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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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

Souq Waqif

“Shopping with these merchants is not merely the going through of certain forms for the acquisition of necessary commodities- it is an art… an amusement…a study in character and national characteristics.”
Gertrude Bell, 1894

My favorite place in Doha, in addition to the Museum of Islamic Art, is Souq Waqif, which literally means “market standing.” It is located along a dry riverbed, the musheireb, near the corniche along the Arabian Gulf. In olden times, this was the center of town, and the vendors would stand by their temporary market stalls, ready to move them as the river rose and its waters encroached.

Journal Entry, March 2010: “It is dusk in the souq. The long afternoon siesta is over. As I park my car between two mosques, the solemn chant of the Call to Prayer rings out, ricocheting between the speakers.  Muslims, mostly men, file into the mosque, leaving their dusty sandals in a neat row beside the entrance. Women have set up tables to sell their wares. Jewelry, fabrics, snacks. Some have bowls of eggs they will fry on iron skillets. I search for one particular store, which sells handsome, rugged old furniture. No one can give me directions, even the policeman standing on a crate in the middle of a small traffic circle. I take this as an invitation to simply wander around some more. Who knows what else I might discover? As the sky darkens, colorful lights come on, and the market comes to life. This is when the real action happens. I sit down at the Lebanese café on the main pedestrian boulevard to sip delicious mint lemonade, people gaze and jot down notes in my journal. This is a popular gathering spot for locals and expats alike. Next to me,  men and women are smoking shisha.”

The souq , a maze of narrow alleyways, twisting among simple mud dwellings,  captures the flavor of the Arab world. Fragrances of incense, perfumed oils, and spices. Ginger from China, teas from Ceylon, cinnamon from India, medicinal herbs from Iran, cardamom, saffron and Oudh (sandalwood.)  Wooden carts display dyes, kohl, hookah (“hubbly bubbly”) pipes, mubkhari (mud incense burners), pumice stones,  brass dalla (coffee pots) and even small pets in cages. Closet-size shops brim with wares: pashminas, cookware, tools, Aladdin Lamps, tin lanterns, daggers and stacks of Bedouin cushions and camel blankets woven in bright primary colors.In the distance, stately minarets and chedis of mosques, topped with the crescent moon symbol, form striking silhouettes.

Muslim Qatari families meander about. Lively brown-eyed children climb over and under benches and tables and bolts of cloth.  Women are gliding- not walking- in their graceful, flowing abayas.  Young Muslim couples stroll along beside each other, their private emotions well concealed by their attire and demeanor. There is something enchanting about how some of the women, their faces entirely covered by a simple black scarf, whisper to their companions.

I purchase a few items. Several pashminas. Bronze camel candleholders. A book of essays written by young Qatari women. It still feels strange to me to bargain down the prices, especially since they are so low by American standards. It is expected, however, so I am refining my approach with the right phrases: “Oh, no, that is much more than I want to spend.” Or “But I saw this at another shop for much less.” Or- and this line works the best-“I do not have that much money with me.” Thus the bantering continues and a mutual price is agreed on. A friendly young man urges me to purchase some of his Omani silver jewelry and silver crown-type headdresses by putting them on me. I appease him by buying a couple pieces. They will always remind me of this day, this place.

An unfamiliar sight: old men sitting or lying in wheelbarrows, which they use to ferry about shoppers’ purchases. Human camels on wheels. They seem remarkably cheerful.

A familiar sight: a young adolescent boy, around twelve, still soft, smooth and pudgy in the cheeks, proudly wearing a thobe and ghutra, but awkward and self-conscious, flipping his head-scarf this way and that to get the right effect, tripping a bit over his gown.  A rite of passage. A man-child trying out his new identity. Like a young American boy wearing his first tie.

Journal Entry, April 2010:  “I have come to the souq to pick up some silver necklaces for my daughters and nieces. The designer, a Qatari man, has fashioned their names in Arabic on them. The mid-day Call to Prayer begins. Shopkeepers shut their doors to rest. Some head to the mosque or kneel on their prayer rugs. As I leave, I notice a South Asian man, probably a Pakistani, sweeping the street in the glare of the sun. I wonder when he gets to rest….”           Next Post: Our Global Family:Glimpses

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

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