Saturday, February 28, 2009
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
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
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
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,
From Mr. Basil’s class
Written as a collaborative poem
With a little help from Elizabeth Thomas
Saturday, February 21, 2009
Yesterday (Friday), Tatiana and I took a 1.5 hour bus ride to
We exited the bus in Burj Dubai, a historic district of Dubai, located on the western side of the Dubai Creek and went for a walk along the harbor, a collision of old world and the new. Abras (water taxis) ride up and down the creek, bringing people back and forth, in high contrast to the high-rise office buildings and banks on the opposite shore. The boats do not look seaworthy (or even creek-worthy) and the buildings tower over all.
And since it was a Friday (the holy day), most of the only other people on the docks were male workers from India who have the day off and nothing more to do than hang out by the water for the cool breezes it brings. And I’m talking about 1000’s of Indian men everywhere! We could easily have been in
I asked Tatiana, where among the crush were the women and she says that most of the men are here alone, working to send money back to their families. They are able to stay as long as they are working and might not see their families for many months at a time.
We went to a fabric shouk (market) and I stood back as Tatiana bargained with a vengeance (Terri, you would have loved all the lovely materials for sale). I purchased a beautiful handmade wall hanging for 60 dirhas (about $17 US). He started at the price of 150 dirhas and Tatiana just kept walking away. I think he finally gave in so we would keep walking.
And I also bought a few pashminas (wide beautiful scarves to wear over your shoulders for a bit of warmth in the rabid air conditioning here or to use to cover your head). Again, that girl knows how to bargain, but she says the shop owners expect it.
The market area itself was a misshapen alley of stone and brick and I’m guessing, duct tape. Each shouk has its own product and this one was piled high (everywhere) with fabric and silk and color. What’s interesting is when they close at night, they merely throw a piece of tarp over the outside merchandise. No one steals. The crime rate is very low, but then the penalties are very high. If you take out a loan and you do not pay it all back, you go to jail. No arguments.
From the market we went to ‘old
I felt very safe walking the streets, even though we were not in the upscale area yet. One thing I notice is when (as a woman) you pass by a man, generally there is no eye contact. Men often greet other men by touching noses. Many men also hold hands while walking together, as a sign of friendship.
We took a cab to the tonier part of town and ate from a delicious local’s menu - falafel, tahini and pita, lentils and rice, hummus (again Terri, you would have loved it) and then sat outside watching the ‘show’.
We met up with Nujoom and her husband, Halid and went to the Emirates Mall. It’s like any mall you would see in the
The mall is also the site of the indoor ski slopes. What a gift to young people (and not so young) here in the hot Gulf area. I did not go inside, but am including a photo. It was packed in there!! And you can go for the day for about $35, including the snow clothes.
Thanks to Halid, we were dropped off right at the bus station. A long ride back to the hotel and up this morning at 7am to be driven to
The conference went very well. I have now made several friends among the ‘girls’ and they all came to my session to support me (and take some photos with the American).
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Weird - Sometimes my blog page instructions come up in English and sometimes they come up in Arabic (reading from the right to the left side of the page, not that I would know what they say anyway).
We were picked up yesterday afternoon in 3 SUVs. I was with my host's wife, Tatiana (she is from Croatia) and her very sweet (and quite game for anything) Italian mother (Mom, you would fit right in). There were several Canadians also, all from the University.
Each vehicle had a driver and someone who spoke enough English to be our guide. I never got the driver's name, but Saif (from Pakistan) was our guide. We headed out to the desert and for the next 1/2 hour or so, hung on for our lives. At times, we were vertical and the driver's cell phone kept ringing. He would hold it in his right hand, put it to his left ear and continue to steer or he would text.
When you see all the construction that has occurred out here in less than 40 years, it seems a miracle there is any sand left (red sand where we were). But sand there is for mile upon mile. And they way the wind blows it (creating intricate designs, then recreating), you would think that one day the sand will take back over.
An odd contrast to barren beauty of the sand, are the power lines that reach across off into the distance - tall towers and black line.
In the area we were in, Al Ain, the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan al Nahyan (Al Ain was his birthplace) spent years transforming parts of the desert into a 'green haven'. An environmental miracle if you consider it.
As we careened off the sides of sand dunes, we'd get glimpses of 'farms' (where you would least expect to see one) with short palm-like trees and greenery, along with camels, ibis and other livestock - in the middle of nowhere. Shaikh Zayed was an environmental thinker and used both the traditional 'aflaj' (underground canal system of irrigation) and modern technology to raise farm productivity.
They may have sand here and they may have oil, but water is in demand.
Again, in the middle of nothing, we arrived at a spot where we were treated to a falcon 'show'. For centuries, falcons have been trained by Bedoin tribes for hunting and it is still a popular, traditional pastime in the country. We sat and watched, drinking Arabian coffee (excellent) trying to keep the sand out of it, getting to know our guides a little and enjoying the show.
Our next destination was a 'desert outpost', used for the barbeque. I have to say, the next half hour or so were some of the most surreal moments I will probably ever live.
A large campfire was burning when we arrived and since the sun was down, we sat around it to warm ourselves. I noticed a very large white screen set up near the bathroom, but thought it might be a privacy screen. One of our hosts started up the coals and was preparing dinner.
So, picture it - The smell of kabobs on a grill, a beautiful starry night with folks whose company you are enjoying, a campfire in the middle of the desert, a cultural experience - got it!
And then, the screen lights up and our host invites us to watch 'The Mummy' with Brendan Fraser (as an American serving in the French foreign legion), while dinner is prepared. It was one of those moments where you must be dreaming. I kept looking around for the 'candid camera' guy.
And while one guide cooked dinner, the other guides settled in with a 'sheesha' pipe and seemed to be enjoying the show. Sheesha is not an illegal drug or anything, though it is tobacco smoked from a large water pipe, with several hoses for sharing (like a hooka). I tried some and it tastes sweet like flowers or maybe a type of fruit. I figured the rest of the night was strange, why not!
By the way, I thought the kabobs were chicken (and wasn't I 'hankering for local food'), but after being pushed a bit, the guide said they were 'meat'. After being pushed a bit more, he said they were 'goat'. Later, Tatiana told me they were probably camel. No wonder they spit!
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
My first week of teaching is complete. Just got back from a swim in the hotel pool and am heading down to dinner soon. It is such a contradiction to see a woman by the pool (not a Muslim) whose breasts are falling out of the top of her bathing suit and then see the young women who attend the school - some covered in black from their head to beyond their feet, leaving only their eyes exposed.
The women have been opening up in their writing and I applaud their desire to learn and share ideas.
I would be the sun rising
to announce a new beginning,
to tell that there
is still a chance.
I like the sound of the pencil
which helps me express what I feel.
I would be the last tears
which fall from my mother's eyes.
Her first laugh after crying,
Tomorrow, I will be taking a desert tour with several other visitors to this area (hopefully not the woman by the pool), complete with an Arabian barbecue. I've been hankering for some real local food, since the hotel serves Mexican on Tuesday, Italian on Wednesday, Oriental on Thursday, etc. I can't wait to get away from this hotel!!
My mother wanted to see more pictures :) so am including a shot taken after the first evening's lecture. The woman seated next to me is Najoom and the guy standing in the dishdasha (loose men's robe that covers the whole body) is Kareem. They are the poets I'm working with. The men on either side of the sign are instructors and the man directly to the left side of the sign is also our good host, Jim.
I'm going to end with how confused I am about the bathrooms. Bidets are common here, but the women's rooms at the college come equipped with a narrow hose in each stall. Okay, I get it what it's supposed to be used for, but there is never any toilet paper (I bring my own now) and no paper towels. Just hand blowers by the sinks.
I do not want to sound disrespectful, but I can't figure it out, especially since they are wearing (what appear to be cumbersome and hot) abayas. And the floors are never wet. It is a mystery.
Monday, February 16, 2009
And the best part is, the winning poet is the male poet I'm working with here - Abdulkareem Maatouk
And as we all know in the slam world, the best poet always loses!
The boys are on a completely different campus and unrestricted. They can basically come and go as they please.
The girls range in age from 18 to 25 or so and most will graduate (many are the first in their families, as females, to get a college education) and then will be expected to marry. As restricted as their college life is, this is the first time for most of them to be away from family in any way at all.
Except for 3 young women I saw today, they all wore the abaya (a loose, black robe worn by Muslim women, covering from head to toe, typically worn with a head scarf). It is very hot here and I don't know how they can manage. Some of the abayas are ornately decorated with sequins or embroidery and quite beautiful.
What I find interesting is what they wear underneath - Nikes and jeans, spike heels and tight tops, I saw a pair of dirty Converse sneakers today, pajamas. Not what you might expect to see peeking out from underneath.
And they often use the head scarf (khimar) to hide behind when I ask a question they do not want to answer. For the most part though, they were eager to write about themselves, their thoughts and desires.
A workshop I like to use when first meeting a group is to ask - If you could be any color, any sound, anything in nature, etc. what would you be? Some of the responses today:
I would be the sound of a door opening, leading me to freedom.
I would be the color white, spreading peace throughout the world.
I would be the angry sound of thunder.
And they were all willing to share out loud, individually and within groups. I was so very impressed with their courage to speak and be heard.
At this point, I am feeling quite comfortable, safe and well-taken care of. I have not been able to explore beyond the hotel and the University, but on Thursday a group of us are going to go 4-wheeling in the desert and ride camels. Photo ops. And on Saturday, we're going to explore Dubai proper.
I was just listening to the 'call to prayers'. A type of chanting, almost humming music (sort of). It comes over loudspeakers throughout the hotel area 5 times a day. It sounds other-worldly and at first was disturbing, but I kind of enjoy hearing it now.
Here at the hotel, there aren't a lot of Muslims. Even the staff is a mix of folks from other countries. 5 times a day though, the call to prayers is sounded.
It's early here yet (8:30pm), but I think I'm off to bed.
Saturday, February 14, 2009
Last night I met the 2 Arab poets I will be working with, Nujoom and Kareem (both from Dubai), along with one of the instructors, Basil (originally from NY). Also, 2 officials from the University. My host is not feeling well and with all our schedules being different, he was having a lousy time of trying to figure out pick-ups/drop-offs.
We were able to get through today and maybe tomorrow, then sent him home.
I am a little nervous about speaking tonight. Along with Nujoom and Kareem, we have 2 hours to fill. The audience will be mostly faculty and students. We're asked to introduce ourselves and talk a little about what we plan to teach for the next couple weeks, who we are as writers and where we've come from.
It all sounds like it should be easy, yes? Still, I worry I will maybe make cultural references that might be misunderstood or not understood at all. I worry I'll say something inadvertantly disrepectful. I worry I'll trip. Patricia Smith has a poem she wrote and in it are the lines, "Do they love me? Do they love me? Do they love me?" Maybe that is why I cannot sleep.
Sunday evening, 9:26pm
Well, back from the lecture and I did not trip, though am not completely sure I didn't say something that was misunderstood. I think it went well though, with a full room and lots of questions after. Our host was pleased and we want to keep him happy!
I also worked with a class of theater students this afternoon. Kind of got thrown into it and it was many times better than I'd expected. Everyone spoke English and the few times I said something they did not understand, someone asked.
More later, I think I can sleep. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head...been done.
Anyway, woke up after about 12 hours sleep. It's 6pm here in Dubai and right now, except for the many different languages being spoken around me, I could be at a Hilton in the US.
My room is large and clean, with a beautiful little patio off the back looking out onto a grassy area (right now, several children are out there cartwheeling, arguing about whose is better, or I think that is what they are probably talking about) and beyond that, a pool. I was a bit surprised at the bikinis and skin, but being a tourist hotel...
The weather is perfect (in the 70's) and I can smell some kind of herb in the air all around me. It actually reminds me of my Italian grandmother (Nonie) and I can't think why. If it was basil, I'd know why. It is pungent and comforting, being this far from home.
Including some photos. The pool is obvious. The other is where I'm staying (in the middle). The staff here has been gracious and I've been trying out my completely limited Arabic phrasing with them - Shookran (phonetic) means "Thank you"
Shookran (accompanied by a smile) seems to cover how I feel to be here.
Friday, February 13, 2009
Later this evening, I will be meeting with my host (Jim) and the 2 Arab poets I'll be working with throughout the next 2 weeks to talk about the program. Had a chance to speak with Jim on the ride from the airport. He seems open (a bit organizationally frazzled) and excited to work together.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Yesterday, I was listening to an audio book written and read by Amy Tan entitled "The Opposite of Fate". It's a series of personal essays and she comes across as being a bit spacey, yet quite a world traveler. I figure she must forget things (not just material things) when she travels, though she manages quite well. Gives me hope.
My host called yesterday to personally answer some of the multiple questions I have been emailing him these last couple weeks. I was concerned. He'd written to say I was scheduled to lecture / perform for "2 hours" this coming Sunday evening for faculty and students at the University. I'm thinking - what am I going to talk about for 2 hours and who is going to still be listening? (and yes, Mom, whatever I say, I will say it loud enough for everyone to hear me)
Well, the 'talk' I put together (including some poetry) timed in at about 20 minutes. Okay, only 100 more minutes to fill. Hope there are a lot of questions.
He told me yesterday though, there will be 2 Arab poets speaking with me. Phew! I would have liked their names to google them, but at least I won't have to stand up there by myself and sing karaoke or anything.
Leaving shortly for a 2 hour drive to Miami International and flying out this afternoon. Brought my own pillow and hope to sleep all the way to London. Sweet dreams-
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Fly out of Miami tomorrow afternoon around 5pm and arrive in Heathrow at 6:30am (their time). What this really means is - about 8.5 hours on an airplane. I have a hard time with 1 hour in a car!
Then a 3 hour layover (hopefully enough time to find the next flight) and 7 more hours on a plane to finally land in Abu Dhabi (1 of the 7 'states' of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai being another).
My host will be waiting at the airport to take me to a hotel where I plan to sleep, stretched out on a real bed, for many hours in an attempt to get my internal clock fixed.
It was difficult to sleep last night, as I'm sure it will be tonight. My brain is on overload and if I misplace my keys one more time, you will all hear my scream.
Monday, February 9, 2009
Laptop, camera, journal, comfortable walking shoes, toothbrush.
I'm told that I will not be expected to wear the Abaya (the long flowing black gown) or cover my head with a Burqa or Shela, but I should not wear anything 'provocative'. That's not hard with my wardrobe.
Leave in 4 days. I feel electric!