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 “Freya Stark”

“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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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?

Five Frequently Asked Questions

“It is really HOW and not WHAT one sees that matters…”

Freya Stark, Baghdad Sketches

1.Do you, as an expat, have to cover your head? -No. In Dubai, Qatar, Oman, Jordan, and all other Muslim countries EXCEPT Saudi Arabia, the only place it is required for all women, regardless of their faith, to cover  their heads is inside mosques. Non-Muslim women can wear their normal attire everywhere else, but it is appropriate to dress modestly.

2.Can a foreign woman in Dubai and Qatar go anywhere alone?-Yes.

3. Can a Muslim woman in Dubai and Qatar go anywhere alone?-Yes, I frequently see Emirati and Qatari women shopping and driving alone or with their children. They are, however, more likely to dine out with small groups of women  or their families rather than alone.

4. Is it expensive?  Yes and No. Real estate is expensive. Prices for food, clothing, and other amenities are comparable to what I am accustomed to paying at home. The cost of services, such as home cleaning, taxis, childcare, salon care, etc. are quite inexpensive, which is what gives the life of the expat the image of ease and luxury. People can afford domestic help, including chauffeurs, here, which would be unthinkable back in the United States. And, of course, the price of gasoline is cheap: 45 cents per gallon!

5. Are you ever afraid for your safety there?No.  Due to the more progressive attitudes toward women in this part of the Arab Gulf,  the family-oriented, slower-moving culture, a large security presence, and the no-tolerance policy on crime, which is strictly enforced, I am never uneasy in terms of my physical safety. It is much more dangerous in US, UK, and European cities!  What surprises most visitors to Dubai and Qatar is how clean and civilized these cities are.  Some would say sterile. A friend who visited us in Doha repeatedly commented on how “gentle” and cordial the people are, both the women and the men. There are exceptions, of course, but the general impression holds. Certainly there is an understory, however. The no-tolerance toward crime mentality has a dark side to it, for sure. And the English language newspapers undoubtedly cover up a lot of what goes on. Nevertheless, it is ironic that in a part of the world associated with terrorism and violence, we feel safe.

These questions reflect the stereotypes that Americans have about the Arab world in general. It seems that many people think that all Muslim countries are like Saudi Arabia, which receives much media attention. Before I lived here, I thought the same!

Next Post: Visions of Utopia

Sand Sifter

“This is my first journey across the desert; I have no useful knowledge.”

Freya Stark, Baghdad Sketches, 1932

On first glance, the sands of the Arabian Desert are a flat expanse of bleached beige. But as the sunrays and shadows shift, and you venture deeper and deeper, countless colors and contours reveal themselves.  A palette of muted hues evoking the spices of the East: curry, saffron, and cardamom.  The dazzle of gems and minerals embedded within the earth’s core: quartz, amber, and copper. And what begins as an even surface, a simple spread, twists and folds into an elegant fabric of pleated satin and suede, sliding up and down dunes of dizzying heights.

The desert, with its fusion of tints and shapes, bold yet subtle and surprising, mirrors the complexity of the Arab world. Both are multi-layered and multi-textured, defying boundaries, constantly shifting, simmering with a sturdy life force- a coarse brutality softened by wind song, moon shine, and star light.

It is not my purpose in this blog to discuss the conflicts that seethe in the Middle East. Here is where I landed for a little while, at a historical moment in time. I am an outsider, which is humbling, for it challenges me to see with new eyes and a sense of wonder, without judgment or agenda. There is something to learn every single day, no matter the setting. It is liberating and energizing to be an anonymous observer. I am curious about the unique customs of different countries. Even more, I am interested in the lives of ordinary people, the similarities among us…for, ultimately, we are all like the desert dwellers, the Bedouins, charting our course from day to day.

“Every Bedouin, every traveler, must become a philosopher.”

Toni Briegel, Soul of Sand, 2002

Next Post: Back to the Future!

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