Thursday, March 5, 2009

Meeting the Vice Chancellor

My last day in the UAE, I had the opportunity to meet the Vice Chancellor of the University, Dr. Abdulla Al-Khanbashi. He is one of the main reasons the program I was involved with was established.

Without his support, it seems nothing of import happens at the college. His original idea was to create cultural activities at the school for the benefit of the young women who attend - to expose them to new ideas and possible future pursuits. Hence, poetry as theater, digital photography, puppetry as theater and 2 other theater-related programs.

My final day was already over-full, but when a last-minute call came from the VC's office to say he would have time to see us at noon, my host and I made room. We arrived early and waited while people before us entered and left. It put me in mind of the Godfather.

When you want something done on the campus, if Dr. Al-Khanbashi is on board, it happens. And it happens quickly. Not like most things on campus or the UAE for that matter.

He was dressed in the traditional dishdashi and shook all our hands upon meeting. His office was quite spacious and clear of any clutter. He was handsome and soft-spoken and looked right at me when I spoke. He was not what I'd expected.

He wanted to know if Jim and I thought the program had been successful. I spoke of the talent and courage of so many of the girls and how welcoming they were toward me. And I thanked him for making it possible.

For each program (mine was the 3rd of 5), large, well-done posters are made to help publicize. A poster from each previous program had been presented to him with 'thank yous' and notes from the students scrawled upon the poster. Jim handed him one from this program, but it hadn't been signed by anyone. He handed it back, saying it means more to him with notes from the girls, because he saves them.

There is an international concert coming soon to a theater not far from campus. Jim has told me how difficult it is to get approval to take the girls off-site for even just a night. He has done it before, but only after many months of waiting each and every 'final' approval.

The concert is in a of couple weeks. At this meeting, Jim decided to ask Dr. Al-Khanbashi if he could bring his students. Dr. Al-Khanbashi happened to go to college in Kentucky and while there, worked as an usher at a theater (I had a difficult time imagining him as a theater usher, let me just say).

Not only did he give his stamp of approval (and it is FINAL), he also asked if it were possible for the girls to become more involved in the production - as ushers, as backstage help, as ticket takers, etc. He didn't want them to simply sit in the theater as audience.

In the US this would not be a big deal. Ideas like this happen all the time. In the UAE, this is so very contrary to much of what I witnessed and heard and experienced. Little there, happens quickly.

I was incredibly impressed by his attitude and his desire to create opportunities to help these young women grow. An honor to have shaken his hand.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

International Festival of Literature

I'm sorry if you have tried to comment on the blog and have been unable to do so. Several people have emailed me directly due to troubles with posting comments. Please email me at if you have anything to add/question. Again, sorry about the technology.

A few days back in the Florida Keys (and at least 2 more days) and am astonished at all the skin I see around me! Much of it, bubbly red and burnt by the sun.

And down here, I always thought the tourists drive fast (don't want to miss the morning happy hour prices), but this is nothing compared to the speed with which they drive their cars in the UAE. And no happy hour prices there, just lots of repressed sexual energy.

The first-ever Dubai literary festival opened last Thursday ( Sixty-five writers from 20 countries, including Britain and the United States, participated in the four-day Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature. The vision of the festival is to “join together people of all nationalities to celebrate literature in all its forms.”

The festival faced literary fallout earlier this month when ‘The Gulf Between Us’, a romantic novel by Britain's Geraldine Bedell, was turned down by the organizers. The book features a gay sheikh.

Canadian author, Margaret Atwood (award winning novelist and poet), vice president of PEN, the literary anti-censorship organization, cancelled her appearance at the festival outraged by the decision.

After further research, Atwood found the situation was not at all what it appeared. The allegedly banned book had not been published yet and there was no evidence Bedell or her book had even been invited.

Atwood wrote on Saturday in the London's Guardian newspaper that she regretted her decision, which she made based on the belief Bedell's book had been banned.

"This has nothing to do with censorship,” said the festival director. “We simply found after reading the book that it was not suitable for the festival.”

In the end, it was too late for Atwood to appear live, so she participated via video link at two festival events – a reading of her work and a panel discussion on the subject of censorship. Perfect!

On a personal note – I read about this incident while still in the UAE and applauded Atwood for pulling out. At the same time though, I thought how extraordinary it was for an event of this kind to be considered, approved and actually hosted in the Middle East. This was a FIRST and being planned as an annual event. I felt torn, wanting it to succeed and be embraced by the local, as well as international population.

The event entered the conversation my last night there. I was sitting at the dining table with 7 or 8 (all male) professors from the university (Arabic and other), along with the other 2 poets I'd been working with. One of the Arabic professors was boasting about Margaret Atwood’s upcoming appearance. Very pleased about it. Obviously, a fan.

I mentioned that she had canceled her participation and why (this was before her own further research and change of mind). “Ahhh, well, we can’t have that type of thing here, can we?” he said, nodding his head and folding his arms across his chest.

Another Arabic professor at the table responded (and I loved it), “If Dubai wants to become an internationally respected and sought-after business/cultural destination, then they have to start acting like one.”

Change is definitely in the air (or perhaps the sand)…

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Jet lag

These photos are from Abu Dhabi and a visit to the Emirates Palace, an astonishing place. Abu Dhabi is the capitol of the UAE and hopes to soon become an international cultural center. The palace is quite posh-

Since arriving back home, I've been spending more time sleeping than writing. I did want to post another collaborative 'found' poem written by one of the classes I was working with. We read the poem 'Famous' by Naomi Shihab Nye and talked about what we would like to be known for. In her poem, Nye talks about how a buttonhole is famous only to the button, the river is famous to the fish, the loud voice is famous to silence.

I would like to famous
like the smile of white jasmine
is to the garden.

Like the first drop of rain
is to the ground
to which it returns life.

To be famous
like a piece of ice
on a hot day
in the middle of the desert.

Like the ball
when it enters the goal,
along with all
the strong cheering.

I would like to be famous
like the long suffering shore
when it is hugged
by the waves.

Famous as the happy hen
when she lays her first egg,
but all her happiness
goes away
when the farmer takes it.

I would like to be famous
to the old man,
as the years he spent
and can't get back.

I would like to be famous
like Dr. Mirrione (he was my host).

Famous like a school uniform
is to the child who puts it on
for the first time.

I would like to be famous
as the spreading horizon
is to the sky.

I would like to be famous
as the naughty daughter
who always makes her parents laugh
and whose smile they miss
when she is sleeping.

as the sun
after a long darkness.

Collaborative poem
UAEU 2-09

Writing this poem with them, reinforced what an honor it was to be there helping them discover their voices.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Back in the USA

Flew into Miami late yesterday, then another 2 hour car drive to the Keys. I’m here for a few days before heading back to CT and a busy March.

The last few days in the UAE went by more quickly than I would have liked. There were many tearful hugs and good-byes. I am hopeful that some of the girls will stay in touch via email. I made a few of them promise to send me their poetry to post on my website and there are some that I would just like to know how their lives are going.

Right now, my mind is full of flashes of faces, conversations and long, black abayas. For the next several blog entries, I will just randomly write.

I can't stop thinking about the 'long, black abayas', especially now that I am here in the Keys. It is warm outside and I am comfy in a Springsteen t-shirt and baggy shorts, barefoot. Comfortable clothing for the heat.

Consider the abaya - It is black (though sometimes the arms and backs are beautifully decorated with sequins and embroidery) and is NOT even cotton. It comes up high on the neck and drags on the floor (so as not to let anyone get a look at your feet). The sleeves are loose, but long (some of the women also wear gloves to cover their hands) and the whole robe is designed to wrap a bit (more cover-up).

Along with the abaya, the women wear the shayla or hijab (the head scarf) and some styles only leave the eyes exposed.

Originally, the abaya was designed to make a woman unattractive, based on the idea of retaining a moral society. This was 'interpreted' from the Qur'an (Sharia Law) and was obviously interpreted by men.

It is believed that the penetrating look of a man disturbs the privacy of woman, so the clothing protects her, hiding everything including 'all female body's round shapes'.

A woman is obliged to show beauty only to her husband, who in return (again according to Sharia Law), is obliged to buy her beautiful clothes.

The texts of the Qur'an were clear in promoting clothing decency and modesty, but did not state restrictions as to a certain type of clothing or color.

After reading all that, now consider the heat - The weather for the last 2 weeks was perfect. I wore sandals and capris and short sleeved tops. I'm told from late March through September or so, the weather becomes oppressive and it is difficult some days to breathe. How can anyone be expected to learn?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

8am class, or at least most of it...

A school day

Teaching poetry here in the UAE is not too much different from teaching poetry in the US. Though the class is all young women dressed in black abayas, they have the same questions and comments as young women might have at say, University of Hartford. It just took me a few visits for them to open up.

Yesterday’s morning class was full of questions and conversation. It was an 8am class and at 8am, was only half attended. The male instructor left me alone with the girls while he went to find coffee (typical). I asked the class where everyone was and they giggled and said it was much too early to be expected to learn  (again, typical).

Since their dorms are surrounded by barbed wire, I doubt they are sneaking out at night. Plus, even if they did sneak out, there would be no place for them to go. Boys and girls have very little opportunity around here to socialize (if any).

One girl said she didn’t go to sleep until 2am. “Ah, studying hard,” I teased. “Oh no, Miss (they still call me ‘Miss’ here and I thought that was just US slang), no study.” And then they all giggled behind their shaylas. So, even here where they have no access to alcohol or drugs or boys, they find ways to party. Probably innocent partying, but it keeps them up until all hours anyway and makes them late for class.

They ‘trust’ me at this point and with their teacher out of the room, we talked about our relationships with family (most express a deep love for both parents, but particularly for their mothers).

And we talked about their desires for the future. For some of these girls (particularly of lower income or those not from the UAE, where things seem to be evolving more quickly), University is mere ‘finishing school’ and when they graduate, they will be expected to marry (sometimes arranged and with someone related) and have many children. This is slowly changing, but still happens.

As a westerner, I am appalled by the idea of an arranged marriage, but the lack of coed social settings (there is no concept of courtship in Islam, no ‘trying’ each other out) and a tribal mentality invite this custom to exist. I think. Still trying to wrap it all around my brain and research has been contradictory.

When they learned how young I was when I had my son, the conversation sped up. I’m told that many of the girls marry as arranged, but on the other hand are also able to divorce if they can prove the husband has inflicted physical or moral harm upon her (‘prove’ may be the key word here); for example, that he deliberately stayed away from her for 3 months, or has not paid for her upkeep or for the maintenance of their children.

It is all very conflicting, but supposedly on the other hand, a husband can divorce his wife by sending her a message through a cell phone or by sending her a written letter stating that they have been divorced or I also read, a Muslim man can end his marriage by telling his wife, "I divorce you" three times. Hmmmmmm

As for child custody, the UAE grants divorced women the custody of female children until they reach the age of maturity or marry. Male children stay with the mother until they reach the age of 13, then go live with their fathers. Good luck to the Dad's, getting the boy just as he enters teenage-hood!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A found poem

These are the words and images from some of the young women I've been teaching. I just took their lines (cleaned them up slightly) and arranged them into a poem.


If I could be any color in the world
I would be green
Like the beautiful trees

In a quiet garden,

Where the birds fly above my leaves

And taste the flavor of freedom.

Green, the color of renewal,

Knowing something will be born.

I would be black

To absorb all other colors,

To absorb hatred, jealousy, bloodshed.

Black like the color of night,

To hide myself from strangers

Who want to enter my life.

I’d be the whispers

That float in the sky

To make the clouds shiver

With delight.

Or I could be yellow

Like the sunrise in the morning,

Something to give us hope,

To touch a heart full of darkness.

I would be the smell of earth

touched by rain.

The sound of that rain

When it is heard on my street,

Meaning I’ve arrived at my destination

After a long, hard journey.

I would be my father’s glasses

The ones he looks through

To see me growing day after day.

The glasses he holds carefully

And cleans with all his love.

His white t-shirt filling with color

When he says “Good morning, Beauty.”

I would be the sound of the wind

Traveling from place to place,

Seeing the world

Without anyone to stop me.

The sound of a book opening,

Giving knowledge.

Giving voice.

From Mr. Basil’s class

Written as a collaborative poem

February, 2009

With a little help from Elizabeth Thomas