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 tag “Arab Spring”

The Middle East: My Questions

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“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

John Muir

Confession: I have been avoiding writing this post for months because: #1: It is hard. #2: I do not want to get into political or religious commentary. #3:  I am loathe to judge another person, let alone another culture.  But I feel obligated to do a sort of “reality check” after focusing primarily on the impressive, beautiful, admirable aspects of the Arabian Gulf. It is a sorely misunderstood part of the world.

When I finally did start writing, I kept getting tangled up in my thinking and coming back to the remark above by the environmentalist John Muir. He is  talking about the natural world in the broadest sense: trees, bacteria, rocks, fish, mountains, human beings, tears, sweat, cultures, stars, worms, religions, myths, life, breath, death.  We are one community.IMG_2273

As I ponder the ongoing strife and tragedies in the Middle East and try to sort out what seems “right” and what seems “wrong”, my lines of analysis criss-cross. There are contradictions and inconsistencies within every culture, indeed within every human heart and soul.

I am repelled by acts of aggression, civil rights violations and human rights atrocities, not only in the Middle East but also all over the world.  I am baffled and outraged by how radical extremists of all faiths and political persuasions condone and justify their acts of violence.  Genocide? Honor Killings? Holy Wars?  Even the terms are traps.




My husband and I just finished watching again the superb series The Six Wives of Henry Vlll, starring Keith Michell.  Recalling the bitter feuds boiling over for centuries in the West among families and nations and within the Christian Church made us reconsider our view of the ongoing controversies in the Middle East.  The bad news: human nature is complex and flawed. The good news: things can get better.

I will always wonder…

What is the difference between purists/fundamentalists and extremists?

How can the tender, flowery love language of Arab and Persian poets co-exist with the hard edges and the brutality of life there?

A poet in Doha- (WSJ ,Nov. 30 2012) was sentenced to life in prison on charges of undermining the authority of the ruling al Thani family. Criticizing leaders is against the law in both Qatar  and the UAE. How can these two governments progress toward more liberal policies for their citizens when they will not allow dissent?

But what I wonder most is what will happen to these innovative, energetic, proud cities in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.  I will watch, fondly, with hope, from afar.

The posts on the Middle East will end just as they began, with a poem by Hafiz, who says it all in 29 words.

Out of a great need
We are all holding hands
And climbing.
Not loving
Is a letting go.
The terrain around here
Is far too dangerous
For that.

(Photo credits: The drawing of the Muslim couple in the jar was in an exhibit at the Bastakia Art Fair, Spring 2010; the “relationships collage” was seen at Virginia Commonwealth University in Doha, Fall 2011- artists unknown.)    Next Post: Mongolia: The Last Frontier


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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