Friday, January 31, 2014

Living Abroad in the Middle East

       Living abroad is full of opportunities and surprises. For one thing, I traveled places I'd never have gone otherwise. In fact, I'd probably never have gone to the Middle East at all, had I not lived and taught in Qatar of eight years. Since the UAE, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman were all nearby, I visited each of these Middle Eastern countries (I went to Jordan twice, and would love to go again!).

      Oman is a lovely country to visit. Like the other Middle Eastern countries, Oman is Muslim. It seems to be a "softer" culture, however. Or appears to the outsider to be. For one thing, the Omani men wear different colors as opposed to the Qatari and Saudi men who wear stark white.
     My friend and I spent time in Muscat and then traveled to Salalah in the south. While shopping in a tiny village there, two children followed me from shop to shop, staring at my white hair and light skin. I felt like a spectacle! I guess I was to them.
     The above picture was taken while we traveled around the desert in an SUV. We'd stopped, and were walking around, enjoying bare feet in the sand when a group of Bedouins passed.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

C.S. Lewis

       In my late twenties and early thirties, I was a big fan of C.S. Lewis, reading everything he wrote, some of it twice. I also read everything about C.S. Lewis that I could get my hands on. It has been a long time since my twenties, but recently I was happy to see another book about him published.
       Devin Brown, a Lilly scholar and professor of English at Asbury University, has written, taught, and lectured on C.S. Lewis extensively for more than ten years and has authored a number of books related to both Lewis and Tolkien. His most recent, A Life Observed, A Spriritual Biography, contains a foreword by Douglas Gresham, Lewis's step son. Brown claims that the goal of his book was to focus closely on the story of Lewis's spiritual journey and his search for the object of the mysterious longing he called Joy, a quest which he claimed was the central story of his life.
      I went to Asbury University for the "kick-off" of the book. Douglas Gresham flew in from England to participate. I was surprised at the number of people who turned up in the Asbury auditorium to listen to Brown and Gresham, and I'm sure that the program ended much too soon for anyone who has ever been a C.S. Lewis fan. From start to finish, my attention was riveted to Gresham's anecdotes about his stepfather.
      C.S. Lewis and Tolkien were friends, both teaching at Oxford. While the movies based on Tolkien's books, The Ring series and The Hobbit have been lauded by many, I didn't like them. It seems to me that the movies didn't pick up so much of what was in Tolkien's books. The books based on C.S. Lewis's Narnia series, however, have translated wonderfully into movies.  
     The popularity of C.S. Lewis is something of a phenomenon. In so far as I know, there has never been a big publicity campaign upon publication, no talk shows, no big advertisements in magazines. So how did it happen? Has it all been word-of-mouth?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

No Toilet Paper in the Desert?


                             Qatari Boys                                                   American Girl Enjoying the Desert

Middle Eastern Etiquette
               Aware that I was about to be living in a culture far different from the one I'd grown up in, I did what I could to learn about the "do's" and "don'ts" of living in a Muslim society before I went. The Qataris are Sunni, and part of the conservative Wahabi sect, as are the Saudis. The great wealth of the Qataris has changed some elements in their lives, but not  basic etiquette. High on my list of things to remember was that I should always use my right hand for eating and touching anything that someone else was going to touch. The left hand, I learned, was used for "bodily functions."
             Regretably, I messed up right away. First week: a few parents take the new teachers out to a traditional tea house, where we're served traditional Middle Eastern snacks with our tea: hummus, of course, pita, some kind of big beans, other things that I couldn't identify. None of the new teachers had ever lived in a Muslim country, so we were all intent on exhibiting our best behavior and showing that we knew how to behave in a different culture. The dishes were being passed around the table for the third time when I realized I had used my left hand to pass the hummus to the Qatari mother sitting next to me. Quickly, I put both hands in my lap; I suppose I thought I could hide my error by making my hands disappear. Fortunately, she didn't notice my egregious mistake.
             The whole right hand, left hand thing seemed a bit odd to me until I gave it further thought. Much of the Arabian peninsula is desert, and thus many citizens of Arabia are descended from desert wanderers. In the past, there was no toilet paper. Worse, there was no water, except for the rare oasis, with which to wash hands. Hence, without the modern sanitation aids we have (toilet paper and water), using the left hand for "bodily functions" and the right hand for contact with food, makes complete sense.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Teacher in the Desert

A Teacher in the Desert
              "You're so brave!" I heard that phrase over and over when I told people that I had decided to give up teaching in Pennsylvania and accept a teaching job in Qatar. You're so brave! The decision to move to a Muslim country was not a decision I made lightly. I had grown up hearing the same prejudices against Muslims that other Americans grew up with. But, I reasoned they can't all be terrorists. After all, we Americans are not all Timothy McVeighs, nor do we all fit the stereotypes that citizens of other countries have of Americans. I did my research, checking out what it would be like to live in Qatar. I even tracked down people who had actually lived there. The result to my every inquiry was a positive one, so I packed my bags, sold my house, stored my belongings, and boarded a plane for Doha. 
            At the end of August, I deplaned in Doha, Qatar's capital and its only real city. As I stepped down the ramp from the plane, I learned what "hot weather" really means. I felt like a piece of meat tossed into a boiling stew. The temperature can climb to 122 F during the summers in Qatar.  In practical terms what this means is: I could leave an unfinished cup of coffee in my car in the morning before school and return at the close of school to find it still hot; when I left my car sitting in the school parking lot (or any other parking lot) for more than a few minutes, I needed oven mitts to hold onto the steering wheel when I got back in; when I wore metal earrings I had to be careful not to turn my head when I first got in the car -- the earrings heated up so fast, they'd burn the sides of my neck if I turned my head so that they touched my skin; and the seatbelt! Well, try to imagine how hot the metal fastener on a seat belt can be when heated to 122 F!
     An employee of the school where I was to work met me at the airport. He had a sign with my name on it. He took me to my new apartment which was quite cold! I was to learn very quickly that the interiors of buildings in Qatar feel more like the North Pole than the frying pan desert.
NEXT: SMALL MATTERS OF ETIQUETTE (In other words, what I could and couldn't do in a Muslim Country) 

Yes, there are camels all over the Middle East.
They become road pests just like deer do here.
The camel races in Qatar were a hoot. Eventually,
I will describe them in this blog.