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 “Religion”

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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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

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

Cocktails Anyone?

“The Sheikh, being much concerned over the risk his family was running in the plague-stricken town, had taken the precaution of having in six bottles of brandy, the most convenient medicine he could obtain….But on one luckless night, when his wife happened to enter there, she espied the brandy lurking in a dark corner. Being a lady of marked religious convicitions, she at once called to mind the words which the Prophet has pronounced against alcoholic liquors, and without much ado opened the bottles and poured out their contents upon the floor.”

Gertrude Bell, 1894

I forgot the sixth most frequently asked question. (See the January 23 Post, Five Frequently Asked Questions) Can expats drink alcohol in Muslim countries like Dubai and Qatar? The answer is a simple yes. Explaining how and where is more complicated.

Muslims are not supposed to drink alcohol. As to whether they actually abstain, I cannot speak from firsthand experience, as I have never been with a devout Muslim in a situation where he or she might be tempted to partake. On the other hand, secondhand sources, such as contemporary memoirs and novels as well as anecdotal evidence shared by our friends here, indicate that many do indeed drink alcohol- some heavily- in the privacy of their homes. I have heard it said that they even go to the bars where westerners flock, but they are not wearing their Arab attire when they are there. Muslims incognito, so to speak.  My guess is that adherence among Muslims to this religious commandment is not unlike Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus to theirs: inconsistent and certainly not universal. Gertrude Bell’s remark above refers to a visit to Persia, where the rules were not as strictly enforced. For example, on several occasions she mentions the “fragrant wine of Shiraz” and “the choicest of the forbidden juices of the grape”. Throughout the narratives  of  Thesiger and Stark, who travelled almost wholly in the Arabian Gulf, on every social occasion they drank weak hot tea, camel milk, and cardamom flavored coffee. Never a mention of alcohol.

On a related note, in public settings, Muslims, both men and women, enjoy smoking shisha or hookah pipes, sometimes known as Hubbly Bubbly. Tourists often assume they are smoking marijuana, but this is not the case. The smoke is flavored with herbs “made to order”. It is a rather elaborate process, involving combining herbs and tobacco, heating water in a glass container, and connecting long tubes to a pipe. The pipe is usually shared among friends and family members, and it is an enjoyable, relaxing social custom among Arabs. I often see groups of women out together smoking shisha pipes, laughing and trading tales. These Arab women get just as lively as we American women do, all talking at once!

Back to alcohol. Expatriates in both Dubai and Doha must first go through a lengthy process to obtain Residency Permits. Without those, you cannot do anything. You cannot even stay here for more than a month. For Dubai, I had to go through multiple hoops, including trips to the US State Department AND the courthouse in the capital of the state where we were wed for new official signatures on our original marriage certificate, to prove I am actually married to my husband, since he was “sponsoring” me. But that is another story.

Only after you have your Residency Permit can you apply for a License to Purchase Liquor. In Dubai, there are liquor stores tucked in out-of-the-way places behind certain grocery stores. They don’t make it easy! You have to really want it in order to go to the trouble to buy it!  As for places to drink, restaurants in hotels and other mostly expat areas, like Palm Jumeirah, serve alcohol. Dubai markets itself as a tourist destination, so it is fairly accommodating as it woos international travelers who want to shop in the up-scale stores and frolic on the beach. BUT do not drink on the beach! There is a limit to the government’s tolerance, and drinking outdoors in public areas is simply not permitted.

Qatar is a more conservative Muslim country, focusing on education, sports and the arts more than finance and tourism. Only restaurants in international hotels serve alcohol, along with those “off-shore” on the Pearl Island.  And, up until recently, there has been only one liquor store in the entire country. That’s right. One. And it is in the middle of the desert, right next to the non-descript building that serves as the Catholic Church. Intentional? Probably. Qatar is in the process of building a liquor store on The Pearl, so that makes a grand total of two.

Procuring an Alcohol License in Qatar is an even longer, more involved process than in Dubai. Among other things, your employer has to write on the form how much money you earn each month. How much alcohol you are allowed to purchase depends on how much you earn. Some assume that this is an attempt to prohibit the migrant workers from becoming intoxicated.  I do not know. No comment. Needless to say, our allotment, as with all professional expats, is relatively high. Embarassingly so. How much do they think we drink? Whatever the case, on our first trip to this warehouse size store- as well supplied as one anywhere, by the way- we were soon to host an office party. Therefore, we filled a grocery cart to overflowing with bottles of wine, beer, vodka, scotch, etc. We needed assistance from the porter at our apartment to get it onto a trolley, across the lobby, and into the elevator. For the first- and only- time in my expat experiences, I confess I felt a bit like the stereotype of “the brash, showy American…” That has not kept us from going back to the liquor store and having more parties, however!

Next Post: Windtowers to Skyscrapers

Mind Your Manners

“You might think Casablanca’s modern with its chichi stores and ritzy cars, but under that façade it’s raw…it’s tribal. Never forget that.”

Tahir Shah, Caliph’s House

Casablanca. Beirut. Cairo. Dubai. Doha. This comment made by Tahir Shah applies to all the modern cities in the Middle East. Travelers who do forget where they are can face some unpleasantness.  An English couple who engaged in PDA on the beach in Dubai in 2008 was put in jail. Likewise an American acquaintance of ours in Doha who argued with security authorities over some mundane matter. Never has my mother’s message to “mind my manners” been more relevant! At worst, you face incarceration or expulsion for ignoring the rules here- stated and unstated. At the least, you risk being regarded as an uncouth, ignorant American. But this is common knowledge about life in Muslim countries. What about the more subtle codes of conduct?

I attended a workshop with a Cultural Interpreter of sorts, a distinguished and witty Emirati man, who explained expectations for both professional and social situations. There are three key points to bear in mind at all times, the underpinnings of the Gulf Arab society. David Lamb, in The Arabs- Journey Beyond the Mirage, puts it succinctly:

“We are Bedouin. We are tribal. We are Islamic.” 

Desert. Family. Religion. These three strands are woven into the fabric of day-to-day life. First and most important, is an understanding of Islam. Jeremy Williams commented in Don’t They Know It Is Friday?:  

 “A Muslim believes that God’s hand is present in every occurrence on earth. Nothing happens without God ordaining it.”

So when they say “Insha’Allah” (if God wills it), from ordinary conversations to more inflamed, political circumstances, they really mean it. You hear this phrase constantly. From taxi divers: Me-“Please take me to Bastakia.”- Driver-“Insha’Allah.”  From store clerks:  Me- “Do you sell this type of lotion here?” Clerk- “Insha’ Allah.”   From my Iraqi pottery teacher, Zaineb:  Me-“Will this piece be glazed and fired in the kiln by next week?” Zaineb- “Insha’Allah.”  In an interview on Al Jazeerah News: Reporter: “Will the conflict in Bahrain subside soon?” Official- “Insha’Allah.” You get the picture. I do not mean to trivialize this. I have great respect for their open and frequent expressions of faith. They believe that we humans are not in charge, no matter how good our intentions, how careful our plans, and how diligent our efforts.  An unsettling thought. One we recognize as true but would like to forget. Here you can’t.

Professional Settings: So how does this play out in business deals? Well, for starters, do not expect a meeting to begin at the appointed moment- or hour. Do not try to control time (thus, people). Our speaker told us that Arab businessmen find it more challenging to work with “linear” (his words) thinkers as opposed to “circular or global” thinkers. They do not adhere to punctuality and strict agendas at meetings. They do not like to rush, and they do not understand the Western insistence on sticking to scripted “bullet points”. What is the hurry? And what if the dialogue meanders down a different, more meaningful path? Many westerners tend to consider this approach vague, inefficient, and frustrating. More cynical types consider it evasive, even lazy. In my view, it is simply a call to be more patient and more flexible. “Insha’Allah.”

           “Time ceased to be…But somewhere people in offices continued to hold to the illusion of hours…”

Freya Stark, Baghdad Sketches

The Gulf Arabs’ more elastic and fluid sense of time is more than a matter of deference to the almighty power of Allah. It has evolved from their roots in the desert and at sea, where they live by the sun and the moon.  And you see examples of this cultural mindset everyday, all day long. So, I tell myself, ease up, slow down, breathe….

The Bedouin mentality and the focus on family are also evident in business settings. Arabs pride themselves on being hospitable above all else, to both friends and enemies.  The code of honor in the desert is to feed and shelter even hostile visitors for a minimum of three days.  They are civilized, formal and cordial in their dealings.

         “There is always something royal in the manners of the desert.” Freya Stark, Baghdad Sketches

“As long as people call on you, you will prosper, the Bedouin firmly believe, so every person who comes to you deserves a welcome and respect.”          Marguerite van Geldermalsen, Married to a Bedouin

Gulf Arabs consider it rude to begin meetings without first exchanging social greetings, asking about one’s family and general well being. This exchange of pleasantries may last quite a while. And once the meeting finally begins, they have one habit that is surprising- and annoying- to most of us. Since the importance of family over-shadows every other concern among Arabs, they keep their mobile phones on during meetings, answer them, and sometimes have extended personal conversations while the meeting is in session. It would never occur to them to turn off their phones, in case a family member needs them. 

Our teacher made a final point about professional collaboration. It is vital among the Gulf Arabs to honor a person’s dignity. Never embarrass a colleague. “Public praise. Private criticism.” I suspect it can get tricky to discern the line between questioning another’s viewpoint and criticizing him or her. A delicate dance.

Social Settings:  All of the above “rules” apply. Additionally, it is impolite to decline any coffee, food, or gifts offered. Accept their gracious hospitality.

Men should not shake a Muslim woman’s hand unless she initiates the gesture. Also, it is highly inappropriate for a man to compliment the wife of an Arab – “Your wife is so charming, so attractive…”- or for a woman to compliment an Arab friend or colleague’s husband. There are many layers to marital relations and to relations between the sexes in general.  Always true, but especially here.

Speaking of compliments, the most intriguing tip we were given has to do, again, with the Muslim faith. The term “masha’Allah” means, “praise God” or “thanks be to God.” Gulf Arabs do not like to take credit for any good fortune that comes their way, be it financial success, a promotion, a new car, or a handsome watch. They find it offensive to feel proud. In turn, the person giving the compliment might appear envious- quite gauche. So, if you are inclined to comment on a piece of jewelry or an accomplishment, be sure to add “masha’Allah.” For example, “Those are beautiful pearls, “masha’Allah.” The response will be, “Thank you, masha’Allah.” —-You can’t envy God, after all.

So, to sum up:
Be patient.
Count to ten. Or to one thousand.
Be flexible.
Be humble.
Be gracious.
Be discreet.
When in doubt, be quiet.

Thank you, Mother. You were right!  And good manners are, in essence, universal.

I will end this post with one of my favorite sayings, speaking of tuning into nuances and ambiguities, from an amusing little book of Arab proverbs: Apricots Tomorrow compiled by Primrose Arnander and Ashkhain Skipwith

“No answer is an answer.”

Next Post: Cocktails Anyone?

Pausing at a Crossroads

 “…the secret mysterious life of the East flows on- a life into which no European can penetrate, whose standards, whose canons, are so different from his own that the whole existence they rule seems to him misty and unreal, incomprehensible…” Gertrude Bell, 1894

I am in the airport in Dubai, an intersection of many cultures. It is 12:10 p.m. The stirring chant of a muezzin’s Call to Prayer is reverberating in Arabic on loud speakers throughout the airport. “God is greatest. There is no God except God….” This Call occurs five or six times a day throughout the Muslim world. The exact times depend on the movement of the sun and are noted in the local newspapers each morning: just before dawn (Fajr) and again at sunrise (Shorooq), which counts as one prayer session, then  noon (Zuhr), afternoon (Asr), sunset (Maghreb) and night (Isha). I have come to enjoy this invitation to pause and reflect. Devout Muslims carry their prayer rugs with them, praying wherever they are, or they enter a mosque, removing their shoes and washing their feet first, with men and women going to separate spaces. There are Prayer Rooms in all malls, theaters, museums, and other public places. Hotel rooms have arrows on their ceilings pointing toward Mecca, the direction in which they pray. Some Arabs are secular, and just go about business as usual during the Call to Prayer. The chant ends, and the loudspeakers revert to easy-listening Western Music –specifically “All I Ask Of You” from “Phantom of the Opera”.  Such are the jarring disconnects that occur here. From the foreign to the familiar, the exotic to the ordinary.

The airport is sparkling clean, gleaming with glass and steel and modern gadgets. Laborers bustle about polishing the waste cans, sweeping the ramps alongside escalators, dusting all surfaces. Two South Asian women perched on a counter in the bathroom explain how to work the remote control hand-wave toilet flushers. An East Asian man drives a high-tech floor-mopping vehicle.  Behind me, new employees for Emirates Airlines, all women from the Philippines, are having a training session- in English. Where are the local workers? In fact, there are no Emiratis in menial jobs.  Emiratis  (like Qataris) comprise a mere 20% of the population in their home country and hold only “white collar” positions, mostly subsidized by the government.  In the airport, they are the ones who drift about, elegant and aloof, serving as security officials or in passport control. There are reports that Emiratis and Qataris have recently been given raises of 60% and over to keep them content during the unrest of the Arab Spring.

The juxtaposition of East and West is especially striking here, the first exposure to the Middle East for many travelers. Although at first glance, you could be in Paris or Chicago or any international airport, the scent of cardamom in the coffee, the sound of the muezzin, and the sight of Arabs in their Muslim gowns evoke the same sense of mystery that so enchanted the great Middle Eastern scholar and explorer, Gertrude Bell, in 1894.

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What’s In A Name?

Traveling Inside Out

“No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand that marks the nomad…This cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.”  

T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1935


I begin a journey
across oceans and deserts,
to modern cities
in ancient lands,
into the world of  caliphs and jinns…
mega-malls and hyper-markets,

a journey
among bedouins and sheikhs, souqs and dhows,
minarets, chedis, abayas and dishdasha,
moving to the cadence of the muezzin call to prayer
and the aroma of cardamom, coriander, and cumin.

a journey
to the birthplace of civilization,
a crossroads,
a trade route,
a collision point,
a war zone.

I begin a journey                                            
across continents and cultures
into the past and the future,
beyond distant horizons
into my soul.

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