Friday, March 29, 2013

My Life in America - the People

Long flight, midnight arrival. Car rental: no waiting.
what it looks like to rent a car at midnight in Kansas City
Our agent is twenty-something young.  Black. Male. Beard. Business casual slacks, white polo.  Dark jacket, company logo. A smile.
Howyadoin?  His accent is distinctly American:  hard r's, "yeah," "uh-huh," t is d, s is z, words slid together, vowels buttered with y.
"Where you travelling from?" he says.
"kuh-TAR," says Bob, using the American pronunciation.
The agent smiles and repeats the country's name:  "قطر"
I respond in Arabic and he laughs. "Atakellam shwaya bass." I only speak a little.
He is Muslim. Attended Madrasa - where he came to understand the Arabic of the Koran. Now he's learning to read and write the language too.   He draws his name in fat, curling Arabic letters - and is proud when I can read it.
Yusuf attended Northtown High School.  Graduated from a local college.  Lives with family, which includes two brothers.  He grew up in this city.  But originally, he says, "I'm from Somalia."
He tells us about his trip to Saudi Arabia, his Hajj.  About his flight home sitting beside an American Jew returning from her own pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  How they share experiences - and God - at 30,000 feet.  Male/female, white/black, Arab/Jew.
Two completely different people with one thing in common: both are American.
display from a bulletin board at The American School of Doha
She tells him about the Wailing Wall.  He shares why Muslims circle the Kaaba seven times.
No dissention, no argument.  "It was profound," he says.
Sure Americans don't always get along - any more than siblings like the same music or wear the same fashions.  We are, however, conditioned toward acceptance in a thousand different ways: affirmative action, laws against discrimination, kids who give Valentines to everyone in class, the National Geographic channel.

We're as different as apples and trees - connected by tangled branches of concession.
American is Muslim, Jew, Catholic, Lutheran, Buddhist.  Black, white, olive, brown. Married, single, partners.  Gay, straight, "other." Conservative, liberal, rich, poor, in-between.  Jeans and tee shirt, suit and tie, hijab and abaya.  Outspoken, reserved, prejudiced, accepting.  We are The People of Walmart, The Academy Awards, Tom Hanks (because everybody loves Tom Hanks) and…Westboro Baptist Church ('nuff said).
Cashiers, business owners, homemakers, truck drivers, rodeo riders, students, writers, architects, engineers.
Unique…even to one other.
In fact, you could say that the only thing that's the same about Americans is: we are all so different.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Qatar and the U.S.: Just Like Me!

In honor of this week's much-anticipated trip home, here are our Top Ten Ways Qatar and the United States are alike:
10.  Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson in an episode of Good Times, c 1970-80s
(from the web)
American TV child actor, Jackson Five baby sister, Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction star…married to a Qatari.
9.    Malls
Villagio, Lagoona, City Center, Landmark…just like the U.S., there are malls aplenty in Doha - with shops like H&M, Virgin Megastore, Apple, Nike, Zara, Payless Shoes, Starbucks, Coffee Beanery. 
Doha malls are shiny
8.    People from…elsewhere
American Indians arrived first.  Then came the boats.  The new people planted seeds, built stuff.  Today, descendents of immigrant outnumber American Indians - and many U.S. citizens have never met an American Indian.  In Qatar, building, planting expats outnumber locals 4 to 1.  Western culture is widespread.  And many of these from-elsewhere people have never met a Qatari.
7.    Same Sex PDA
6.    Flowers
Oh the planting and the watering!  Oh the sneezing and the coughing!  Sure there's a construction boom in Doha, but there's also a movement to change the country's overall color from sandy, rocky brown to blooming, growing green.  A year ago birdsong was piped into trees through speakers tucked between branches.  Today, Doha has birds.  Doha has flowers.  Doha has seeds and fluff and…allergens.  (Ah-choo!)
5.    Made in China (and India)
Doha's famous Souq Waqif is rebuilt to look old, so visitors can enjoy a "real" Middle Eastern outing.  Visit the handcraft area where you will see real (from India) Indians weaving traditional Middle Eastern baskets, sewing traditional Middle Eastern clothing, creating traditional Middle Eastern art. Visit the shops and barter Middle Eastern style (with Indians or from-elsewhere Arabs) for scarves, Pashminas, watches, nesting dolls and more…all of which is quite often: Made in China (and India).
Just like America!
4.    Covered ladies
This photo is from, but for the record, I personally know a soccer-playing, habit-wearing, under-30 years old, American nun.  She's fabulous!
Just like Qatar's traditional ladies!
3.    McDonalds, KFC, Chili's, Pizza Hut, Fridays, Applebee's
There's an intersection in Doha popularly known as "cholesterol corner." Here you will find an endless stretch of American restaurants featuring burgers, fries, nachos, peanut buster parfaits and bottomless-chips-and-salsa.
American style muffin-top (ie, wobbly, buttery, over-the-belt layers of belly fat): no charge.
2.    English
America does not have an official National Language (unlike Qatar where the official National Language is Arabic).  UNofficially - America's National Language is English.  UNofficially - so is Qatar's…as more citizens speak English than Arabic.
1.    Family Values
Special dining areas for groups that include women and children, Family Fridays, joined households, arranged- and inter-marriage, Salah, sons who skip business meetings to take Mom to the mall…these are just a few of the ways Middle Easterners honor Family while respecting their culture.
Kin takes the top spot in America too: a dad who works multiple (or far away?) jobs in a bad economy to care for his family, a mom who stays up late to decorate cupcakes for the second grade party.  Prayer.  Skype. Midnight phone calls. Travelling 24 hours for a few days together.
Different.  And the Same.
Our Number One Most Important

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Meet Aisha*

*Not her real name
totally different person, unrelated day, unrelated event
Two years ago I was just like you. I dressed "normally" - in jeans.  I wore gold, makeup and did my hair. Sometimes I wore a loose hijab.  I refused to wear abaya.  It was my choice.
Then I went on Hajj.  I stood side by side with so many people, praying. I stood near the wide, open space where souls return when they die.  I thought, Here is where I began and here is where I will end.  This is where I will stand before my God.  It was a profound experience.  This is where I changed.
Now I wear abaya, hijab, niqab and gloves too.
Of course hands and even the eyes can reflect interest and draw attraction in a man.  Plus we should use a tone of voice that's not high or flirtatious, but is measured so we don't cause them to be attracted to us.
My husband doesn't always like that I cover.  He says, Why don't you wear lipstick and gold and jeans and dresses?  Which, of course, I can't do often because I live in a joined house [husband, 4 children, husband's 3 brothers and wives and 4 children each, along with 2 maids].  I don't wear gloves around my husband because he doesn't like them.  He doesn't like when I wear sunglasses over my niqab too.  Now I can't see you at all, he says.
In my room at night when it's just the two of us I do my hair and makeup and wear jeans. But just for him. That's just for my husband.
Also when I go to my mother's house I can throw off the abaya, hug my brothers.  Then I am just me.
When it's just women I can be comfortable.  I went to a party and my friends were there, also Muslimah.  I dressed up in makeup, hair, gold.  But it took a long time to relax. "You can be comfortable here!" my friend said.  I took off niqab, gloves.  Then hijab and finally abaya.  It was so much fun!
Before when I'd dress up, even my husband's brother would say "oooo you look sexy!" and "Don't you look nice."  Now when I meet him in the hall he looks down (to protect my modesty).  It's better.
My children say, "Why do you always say God this and God that and don't watch this on the tv and you should pray, pray, pray all the time?
Before I did all of this [fun and play and tease and flirt] but now I'm more about my religion.
To someone who asks me why do you dress this way?  I would say:  I want to be judged more about my deeds, about what I do than what I look like. I'm comfortable this way. 
It's my choice.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Al Binaat wo Ana: In Primary School

How old are you?  I'm seven.
Your chest is red.
Your hair is yellow.
What's your name?
You're old.
Do you Salat?  (Palms down, praying motions.)
Why don't you Salat? (More praying motions.)
Little girls circle me, a sea of dark eyes, dark hair and gray, ankle length, vest-style uniforms and crisp white shirts.  Mona, Abeer, Sheikha, Loobya. They run away only to come rushing back, arms open, smiles wide.  "Salaam alaykum wo rahmahu allahi wo barakatu!"  
My Arabic is not quick enough to respond (or request clarification) before they've moved on to the next subject.  They forgive me wholly, chattering on as though I were participating in the conversation.  I absorb the sweet, embracing, curiosity-filled, wonder-love, adorable little girl-ness - and their Arabic. 
There's a game involving hoops, stickers and lines of happy little girls in the bright interior play space.  Windows high above filter dazzling Middle Eastern light into the area.  Laughter echoes against tile floors.  There are English and Arabic words painted on walls in cheerful primary colors.  Pictures of the Emir and HH - and Dora the Explorer - surround us.
bright, cheerful, fun play/meeting/walk-across space
It's lunchtime for "Al Awwal C" (Grade 1C) at this Independent Primary Girls School in Doha, Qatar.
Doha's "Independent" schools are government funded, free for locals and approved others (GCC-nationality government employees, for example).  The language of instruction is Arabic and boys and girls are taught at separate locations.  Men teach boys, women teach girls.  According to local news, women are no longer employed in any capacity at boys' independent schools.  Men are not allowed inside girls' schools.
For months I've walked into schools like this one, hoping for a chance to "atakellam wo istama'" (speak and listen).  I've met with principals, vice principals, administrators.  Provided a copy of my passport and a letter of introduction from Fanar (where I'm a student).  Called for appointments, waited in the lobby, gone away, returned, waited, waited and waited some more.
Schools (and homes) are hidden behind high concrete and stone walls for privacy reasons.  On this day I drive through the 12-foot high exterior gate.  A second barrier shields the school itself from the parking lot.  A traditionally garbed father paces outside the interior gate while his traditionally dressed pre-pubescent son retrieves the man's young daughter. I step through the door in the inside wall, walk across the empty, flower lined courtyard to the paper covered entrance.  A male security guard averts his eyes as he leaves a tray of tea beside the door.
Inside, I expect to be given another phone number.  To wait, leave, come back, wait some more.  Instead, I'm ushered through clear glass doors, beyond the backpack and cubby lined hallway.  I'm introduced to lunch ladies, teachers, a social worker, administrators and helpers.  I shake hands, give - and receive - traditional greetings, hug little girls, speak, listen and Arabic.
Inside this protected area adult women may choose to cover, uncover, wear abayas as jackets, loosen hijabs.  Professional Middle Eastern women wear modest suits, skirts, pants, blazers, sweaters, saris, scarves, flats, heels, with or without makeup, hair clipped or unclipped.  It is impolite to take photos of people here.
In a classroom I sit in a child sized chair amidst the most darling 7 year old girls ever.
Arabic numeral hopscotch
As in any-primary-school-anywhere, little girls fidget, play with their hair, raise hands, talk-too-much, listen perfectly, scowl-frown, laugh-giggle.  They are curious, enthusiastic, fun, funny, silly, serious, happy, sad, playful, sleepy, energetic, tearful, joyful.  Hands up, hands down, stand up, sit down.
Teacher holds up a sign, says, "Shoof al biTaqah!" (Look at the card.)
The card says - in English: "Sit down."
Little girls read.  Little girls sit.
First lesson is Arabic - in Doha, Khaleeji dialect speaking children learn Classical Arabic…just like me.  I copy the dictation and a student reads to the class from my notebook.
Next is Math - today, students study subtraction using a fluent mix of Arabic and English.  Fun cross curriculum activities involve beads, Dora the Explorer paper, markers and leggos.
Then English - there is music and a happy counting song.  A smart board lights up and girls take a virtual trip to the "Beach-Beach-Beach" where they play with a balloon and a bat.  There is laughter, singing, jumping, waving, walking, running.  I am asked to lead the group in "Row-Row-Row-Your-Boat."
Later, 7 year old Mona presses her palms together, thumbs up, fingers forward and says to me:
iftah issundooq (open the box)
                I press her palms open.
akl ittoofah (eat the apple)
                I take the invisible fruit from her palm and pretend-eat it.
ghasl ishahr (wash your hair)
                I rub apple-y hands over my hair.
(words I don't understand result in exuberant, belly-gripping, glee-filled hilarity)
En sha allah, I'll be allowed to return to this joyful place for more speaking, listening and learning.  I need to know the punch line to Mona's story!
 Read about a Qatari student's educational program: Haya Baya!