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.

“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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Rest and Renewal: “Wherever you are is called Here.”

Hello to all! For the last three months I have been traveling in the USA, visiting family and friends. Tomorrow I will fly back to Beijing, and I will be adding new blog posts later this fall. There is still much to say about our life in the Middle East- especially about the role of women- and I also  look forward to sharing observations about all aspects of daily life from inside Asia.  Our experiences there have been fascinating.

While in the USA,  a highlight was attending the Middlebury Alumni College on the Breadloaf Mountain campus with my college roommate and longtime friend, Louise Cadwell. For those of you interested in education, children, and the arts,  explore her beautiful website, Cadwell Collaborative. It is a joy to behold! We took a four day seminar, Robert Frost and his Forest, with the brilliant and talented professor and writer, John Elder. The course included walks through the same woods that inspired and comforted Frost. Nature was his guide. I leave you with this poem, by David Wagoner, called “Lost”, because it touches on Frost’s message and grounds us as we seek our place and our way in this world.

“Stand still.

The trees and bushes beside you

Are not lost.

Wherever you are is called Here.

If what a tree or bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost.

Stand still. The forest knows

where you are.

You must let it find you.”

Nuanced Numbers

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

Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsung Heroes

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

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

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

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

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


















Our Global Family: 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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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

The Expat-Multipat-Repat Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Lessons from My Students Part 3

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

 (Corrections in parentheses are mine.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from My Students Part 2

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

(Corrections in parentheses are mine.)

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

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

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


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

Next Post: Lessons from My Students Part 3

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