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 “Education City”

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

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

Lessons from My Students Part 1

 “Education for a New Era”- Mission of Qatar Supreme Education Authority

(Please note: I am deliberately vague in this post to protect the privacy of my students. These are not their real names.)

 It is an early October day, and I am on my way to my first day of teaching at a university in the vast Education City compound in Doha.  (See May 7 Post: “The Brightest Possible Future”.) I am dressed in my normal attire here- a cotton skirt and blouse, slipper-like flat shoes, with a long  pashmina draped over my shoulders for warmth in the air conditioned spaces and for protection from the blazing sun- as well as a head covering (rarely necessary, but always a good idea to have here, just in case.) The sheer scale of the building I am entering is intimidating. It takes me a while to locate the door I am supposed to enter. When I do find it, it is so immense that, once again in this part of the world, I feel  disoriented, like Alice in Wonderland, suddenly a midget. I enter, get security clearance from the guard, and text Mary, who hired me, that I am here, ready to begin. Mary comes down and escorts me through a maze of massive corridors around majlis courtyards through a cozy study area with high school and college kids snuggled up close together, studying,  and chatting (finally- something more familiar) to my classroom- huge and modern, where my students are waiting.  I take a deep breath and walk in.


Even though the classes at these universities are co-educational, my group happens to be 16 young Muslim men.  One young Muslim woman joins us for a few classes to prepare for a certain test. (I love looking at her shoes under her abaya. One day bright pink Sketchers, the next day black patent spike heels.) My students, age 17-37, are divided into two groups. Some are being groomed for positions in the Ministry of the Interior (MOI). They therefore must pass certain exams in English. The others are employees in a local company who are participating in a pilot program. They started working right after high school and have distinguished themselves as highly capable, with leadership potential. In order to be promoted, however, they must earn college degrees in their field. Their company is giving them an extended paid leave to gain the English skills they need to pass the entrance examination to this university. The company is subsidizing this training and will pay for their entire undergraduate education, if admitted. Pretty impressive.


My brain must go into high gear now.  Mary is rapidly explaining sophisticated equipment, new technology applications and software to me, along with school procedures, schedules, and more. I need to learn 16 Arab names, pronto. (See February  13 Post: What’s In A Name?) The men are busy at their computers, writing essays. I decide to go around and introduce myself to each one of them and jot down their names and some notes. They are polite. A bit distant and formal. Quite dignified in their long white gowns and headscarves, which here are called thobes and gaytras, although there are many terms used for these. I can see immediately that their written English is  very weak, and their spoken English is not much better.


Over the next few days, I get to know them a little better.  The 7 MOI students are more confident in their English skills, as they have just finished high school. As I observe them and interact with them, they are, I realize, like adolescents anywhere in the world. Posturing and pretending a bit. There is an Alpha Group, a Wannabe Group, and some Outsiders. One student, Mohammed, is studious and aloof. Another, Rafan, is sassy and suave, constantly texting on his Smartphone. Sometimes they wear baseball hats instead of gaytras. A couple even wear jeans on occasion. I learn that there are no strict rules regarding men’s clothing. They are taking the practice IELTS and TOEFL Exams at testing sites in Qatar and Bahrain regularly to prepare for the university admission test. They make decent scores, and gradually no longer need the class.  

Barkat is a lively, charming fellow who enjoys showing me photographs of his older siblings, currently studying in the USA. He remains a few weeks longer than the others. It becomes clear that he is not so carefree  and blase as he has previously appeared. He wants to ACE the test. And he does.  A few days later he waltzes into the classroom to surprise me.  It is his birthday and he excitedly shows me a picture of his present- a new car, a Toyota. At this point I no longer see Barkat’s thobe and gaytra. I only see his infectious smile and bright eyes and hope that he will prosper in his career in the esteemed Ministry of the Interior…. and in his adult life. 

The MOI students have taught me that all teenagers, no matter what culture- no matter how wealthy and privileged- no matter how protected and scripted their lives are- have the same vulnerabilities, frustrations, fears, and  aspirations. They long to be taken seriously and to belong.

 So now I am left with the 9 working men, who are still struggling mightily with their English.  Over the next few months, we have quite a journey together…

Next Post: My Students Teach Me, Part Two














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