No Distractions Allowed

I was called into the administration offices by the Vice Principal. She stood behind her grandiose, oppressive desk to greet me, then gestured for me to have a seat in one of the chairs in front of the desk.

“I need to discuss something with you,” she began, still standing. “I understand that you have a bracelet on your leg. This is, uh, well. This is against our culture and our religion. You must remove it”.

“Oh, yes, of course,” I replied. “I didn’t know that it was against your culture and your religion. I don’t mean to offend anyone, so thank you for telling me.”

“Yes,” she said. “You see, the Quran tells us that a woman should not do anything that will draw attention to her. Our students are looking at the bracelet on your leg. Their attention is on you, not on their studies. You see, it’s a distraction for the students and that is against our culture and against our religion.”

“Oh, I’m very interested in the Quran,” I said. “You mean there is scripture saying that a woman shouldn’t wear a bracelet on her leg?”

“Yes,” she said. “There is.”

“Can you please tell me which one? I’d like to read it.”

“God willing, I will tell you,” she said, moving out from behind her desk, gesturing that our conversation was finished.

As she glided across the room to open the door for my exit, I noted the 2-foot long fringe on the bottom of her Abaya that shimmied and swayed with each step she took in her golden-glittered high-heeled shoes.

Oh my!

I was distracted!

My eyes, attracted to the sensual peeking out and in, out and in, of her red lacquered toes, the seductive thrust out and in, out and in, one leg and then the other, followed her every movement. My eyes, attracted to the melodic grace of her gliding, punctuated by the rhythmic swishing jiggles of her decorated hem, followed her every movement.

Oh my!

I was distracted!

And then, my nose twitched.

Ohhh!

My nose, attracted to the luring scent of expensive perfume that filled the space as she stirred the air with her sexy little body, sniffed in generously.

As I felt the familiar comfort of the bracelet on my leg and walked gingerly back to my office to remove it, I wondered if the scripture that denies a woman to wear a bracelet on her leg is sandwiched in between others that give permission for fringe and golden glitter, painted toes and delicious smells showered over and under female secret places.

Hmm. God willing, she will show me those scriptures as well.

 

I stood my ground: Lessons from yoga

Yoga begins with the poses, but it is so much more than the physical practice. It is only through physical movement that we begin to reach deeper into the psyche, the soul, the essence of who we are without our titles and the accumulation of all our experiences and influences.

For nearly a year now, I’ve been requesting to be changed to a different school. All schools generally have the same problems, and the challenges that come from the higher administration in the Ministry of Education are the same as well. I know that no matter what school I may be assigned to, there will be difficult challenges. But the animosity between local teachers and the Western staff at my school has become extreme. And as head of the English department, it was nearly impossible for me to do my duties with the majority of the staff refusing to look at me or even acknowledge my existence.

In my current yoga practice, it’s only me and the teacher, Dr. Amar from Mysore, India, the seat of traditional yoga. He teaches classical yoga. One thing that means is that we hold the poses for 5 long counts, but his counts, one for ever two or three of mine, don’t even begin until he sees that I’m in my optimal expression of the pose. By the time he starts counting, I feel I’ve been there long enough and am ready to collapse.  

But I don’t.

“Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “One.”  “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Two.” And so it goes. I am already sweating before he gets to count “one”.

About a month ago I made my request to be moved to a different school again, this time stronger, clearer. Finally, my boss went into action. By mid-week last week, my replacement had been chosen. I was one foot out the door, but to WHERE, no one knew. My boss had only one offer: a boys’ school. Though I’d refused that possibility all along, I now felt I had to consider it because in just 2 days, my replacement would be sitting at my desk and I had to be in a new school. Though I knew there were other needs, he didn’t offer me any other options.

We begin our yoga class with 5 deep unjayyi breaths, the powerful breath that roars through the body like the ocean’s waves at high tide: rolling in, crashing against the sea wall, crashing against the back of my breast bone, receding, recoiling, returning to the vast waters beyond, emptying my body, leaving a hollow in my belly just in time to rebound, return.  

Then we move into Sun Salutation A, holding in downward dog. First, he reaches from behind me, pulling back my thighs.  “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “One.”  He presses into my back with one hand.  “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Two.” Then he leans into his hand on my back, all his weight over me, eventually pressing his full weight on top of me. He lifts his feet from the ground. His body presses me deeper into the pose.  “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Three.” I taste the salty moisture of sweat dripping from my chin over my lips. I hang in there. “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Four.” Just one more long count to go. 

 I can do it.

Discipline is a major problem in the Emirati schools. In the girls’ schools, it’s ridiculous; in the boys’ schools, it is dangerous. For my physical and emotional safety, I have always been adamant that I would never step foot in a boys’ school. And yet, I went on Wednesday of last week with my boss to see the boys’ school. At that time, the school was generally quiet, and the principal was relatively warm. I heard myself say, “OK”.

That afternoon and into the evening, my phone was blowing up with calls and messages from colleagues across the district telling me of the dangers in that school. The stories I heard confirmed my initial resolve to never go to a boys’ school. I didn’t sleep that night. My stomach was in knots and my heart raced with anxiety.

I desperately want to bend my elbows and knees and find refuge in child’s pose. But I don’t. “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Five.” The pose is released.

Endurance.

My breath strains to stay steady.  

Concentrate.  

My mind tells me it’s OK to break the concentration, to break out of the pose and fold into child’s pose. The teacher must sense my temptation: “You are fine,” he tells me. “Stay.” I stay in the pose. “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “One.”

Only count one?? I feel the panic, but I don’t want the teacher to know.

“Arms straight,” he coaches. “Stay with your breath,” he reminds me. “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Two.”

On Thursday, my boss came to my school to finalize the details of my move. I greeted him in the school lobby saying, “I don’t mean to make your life more difficult, but upon more consideration, I am not able to take the assignment at the boys’ school.” We sat down and the pressure began. He tried one way after another to convince me.

I began to cry.

I told him I understood that he had to do what he had to do, and so, if he needed to fire me, I would make it easy: I would sign the papers, no hard feelings.

And then he tried again to convince me to go to the boys’ school. Again, I refused, tears now streaming down my face as I gulped at the air. Administration staff, other teachers, and students padded carefully past, aware that I was distraught, but not knowing why. I didn’t place my head in my hands as I sobbed; that would have been a posture of defeat. Instead, I pulled my shoulders toward my spine, and lifted my heart ever so slightly.  “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “One.”

My boss told me to just go on the first day, and then, if I ran away by noon, he would understand. I thought for a moment. Yes. I could do that. But then, I realized how stupid that was – knowing I would run away by noon. It didn’t make sense to suffer all weekend worrying about it. So again, I said “NO”.

“Exhale” (long pause). “Two.” He continued to push. I continued to breathe, cry, and refuse. “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Three.”

My body begins to quiver as the class proceeds, struggling to find strength in the depths of muscles. I take my attention to my breath. My breath controls the quivers. I stay because I know that count five is coming. I realize this is a kind of faith. I do this because I know it is good for me.

My boss continued to push. I requested to be sent to a girls’ school. He continued to push for the boys’ school. I took my attention to my breath as I counted the number of times that I said “NO”. I got to eleven. Who knows how many times I’d said it before I began counting. My breath controlled the sobs. I stood my ground because I knew it was good for me.

Finally, he said he would assign me to the girls’ school in the village where the boys’ school is.

“Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Four.”

I tasted the salty moisture of tears sliding over my lips. I licked them away. “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Five.”

Savasana is the time for complete relaxation, the time when the body receives the benefit of the practice. All muscles relax as body, mind, and soul are restored.

My new challenge lies ahead; I cannot yet relax, but I know I have received the benefits of my practice: I stood my ground.

Namaste.

 

Depression Monster

Depression doesn’t have reason or logic. You can’t explain it, and no one can talk you out of it. Neither can you rationalize your own way out. Well-meaning comments like

“look on the bright side”

“you have to see the glass as half full”

“but you have so many things to be grateful for!”

only serve to fill you with guilt and self-loathing for what you believe is an unreasonable depression.

Depression descends on you like a dark, heavy cloud. And because you can’t find a window or pull back a curtain, you quickly become lost. And then, in that dark maze, as you turn and try one way after another to escape, anxiety leaps out from nowhere and consumes you. Depression and anxiety, or panic attacks, often go hand-in-hand.

Depression happens TO you; it isn’t something you walk into deliberately or even subconsciously choose. No, it comes and it settles over you, no matter how strong you are, no matter how well you fend against it.

I do yoga;

I meditate;

I eat well;

I sleep well.

I am often accused of being “too positive”

“a dreamer”.

I smile a lot,

and I see the best in every person

and in every experience.

I have no reason to be captured by depression.

I do nothing to attract it. And yet, depression slips in, swells my body, seeps out of my thoughts and words, and it captures me, pulling me down into a very dark void.  Depression has invisible claws that sink into my soul and fasten me unto its hot, heavy burden. Depression sits on me and, without doubt, declares its intention to suffocate me. By the time I recognize it, I am too vulnerable, too weak.

When depression comes and the darkness swirls all around, there is a strange sensation, an “out-of-this-world” kind of transformation. Everything slows down and the senses dull: sounds blend and become muted, indistinguishable; objects morph into meaningless forms; and hunger feels like an inflated balloon held down by a brick in the base of the belly. You reach out in the darkness for something you know in your mind should be important, but because you can’t touch it, you determine that nothing is important anymore; nothing matters. And then you feel yourself floating out into space. There is no sense of weight; no sense of being. There is peace in that moment, and then you realize that you are falling. Peace vanishes and the stars become the details in your life. They are untouchable, and you know that isn’t right, so you begin to spin, grasp at the air, scream a silent protest. You know you are falling, and you can’t stop it.

I have suffered from depression enough now to recognize it even as it looms far away. And yet, I still believe I am strong enough to fend it off and to be untouchable “this time”. By now, I should know better, but each time, I believe I am stronger than I was the last time, and so I stand my ground and do all the “right” things.

I saw it coming sometime in the Fall. I saw it, but I quickly looked away. I refused to name it. I kept the idea hidden in a deep, wordless thought in the back of my mind. I was determined to refuse it. Depression knows this refusal and wears this knowledge like a badge of honor.

The Depression Monster knows I will deny its presence, and so, when I turn a blind eye, the monster slips into my presence and begins its slow, devious, descent, snaking its way into every fiber of my being. The light fades so slowly that I can pretend it isn’t happening.

And then, there is complete darkness.

The battle raged all Fall, even though I consciously denied it. I managed. Day by day, I functioned. And then, when I came home from work, I hid under the covers of my bed and waited until morning. I refused to think about it. That’s how I managed.

But when my family came to visit, the mental energy required to stave off the symptoms and to hide the evidence of my mental state was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The tears would rise out of the darkness and shake me. The tears were like boiling hot lava stewing beneath my breast bone, and then the pressure would rise into my throat and that’s when I knew I was losing the battle.

I would excuse myself and go to the bathroom where I would sob into my hands and squeeze out the last bit of moisture from my eyes so I could shake it out of me and go back out to be in the group.

I would I would say “you go ahead, I’ll be there shortly” when they went to the pool, and then I’d cry again, wash my face, and again, shake it out of me.

In the mornings, I took brisk walks, trying desperately to fill my body with cool breath and a rejuvenation for life that would fend off the tears for that day.

Each time, I’d be OK for a while, but then, then the tears would come again. During their visit, I was so busy trying to hide it, just dealing with the constant sensations that simmered in and around my heart that I wasn’t consciously aware of what it was. But once they left, I knew without a doubt that I had fully fallen.

I knew what to do because I’ve been here before. I’ve already been through the trial and error process of finding the right medication and now, I don’t have time, energy, or money to go through that again. So I found a psychiatrist in Dubai and made an appointment. I requested Prozac. He wrote the script.

I’m not proud that depression is one of my life’s challenges. But I am also not ashamed.

As I determined what elements in my life were contributing to the breaking of my soul and which ones I could potentially eliminate, I called a meeting with my supervisor and requested to be moved to a different school.

He needed reasons.

I told him I was broken and had fallen, that depression had captured me.

The look on his face and his consequent words and actions revealed that to him, depression, and mental health were topics to be feared. For a moment, I was ashamed that I’d told him the truth. But that didn’t last long. A new wave of confidence came into my consciousness, like an angel whispering in my ear. By speaking, I knew I was in control of the Depression Monster by naming it, bringing it out in the open, slamming it on the table, so to speak, and demanding it be seen by others as well.

If you suffer from depression,

please know that you are not alone

and that there is hope.

Tell someone, even if you are scared.

And if you know someone who suffers from depression,

please know that it isn’t shameful,

and that your loved one isn’t in any way flawed.

Tell someone, even if you are scared.

“This too shall pass” seems too trite to say, and yet it is an anchor to hold you still until the darkness lifts, and it will.

Get help.

It’s out there.

 

 

Family Visit to the UAE

christmas tree in dubai all 4 of us

 

They arrived!

We hugged, and my heart swelled so big

that my feet were lifted off the ground.

 

 

 

First, son Isaiah and his dad, Sam, came.

sam isaiah and me in wadi

and then a few days later, the three of us went back to the Dubai airport to pick up daughter Eliza, and her boyfriend, Peter.

eliza and peter at the top of the burg

I wanted so much for them to see what I have seen, to know what I know.

I wanted them to discover hidden Arabia tucked into dark, narrow alleyways,

sam and isaiah in a cave

and ancient Arabia lying open in the desert under the sun.

isaiah at al hail castle

I wanted them to feel the energy of Dubai’s great magnificence,

view from the burg

and to feel the Arabian sun on their skin and the soft desert sand under their feet.

isaiah sunset at safari

I wanted them to taste the bitter, sweet, and salty foods from India and Syria,

and to smell the thick smoke from bohour chips and hooka pipes.

I wanted them to hear the silence of the wadi,

Isaiah in the wadi

the cacophony of languages in shops and on the streets,

the crashing waves of the Gulf of Oman,

eliza and peter facing sunset safari

and the blowing winds speeding through valleys and whipping through our hair.

4 of us windy safari

I wanted all of this,

and it was granted.

 

Hanging out with my children and their father here in the UAE where my life is hard to describe and even harder to explain was at once wonderful and surreal. We made many memories, but I believe that for me, at least, the best part of it all was when I was able to share with my family the joy of being connected with others in the most unexpected and surprising ways of all.

We shared a BBQ with my Pakistani friend (my driver), Zaheer, and his housemates.

4 boys at BBQ

It seems like a simple, even common thing: a BBQ party. But look deeper: the unlikely event that those Pakistani men and my American family would ever convene on a beach in a country foreign to all of us makes me know just how very uncommon our party was, and how the beauty of that moment is truly precious.

Because of the strange and wonderful friendship between Zaheer and me, which is also unlikely, the love ripped out from an already unusual bond and our circle grew bigger.

We cross paths with people different from ourselves all the time, but seldom do we truly  connect. And by “connect”, I mean STOP. LOOK. SEE. And BE.

To be in the presence of another and see him, and realize that you are seen, is an intimate experience that instantly breaks down decades, even centuries, of political, social, and religious rhetoric: words that create and confirm beliefs that build walls and keep us apart from one another.

With international travel, television, and the internet, we are no longer separated by geography; instead we are divided and boxed in by arbitrary lines defended by weapons and words. And yet, there on that beach in Kalba, Fujairah, where we shared the same fires, the same plates of cooked food, and the bottles water and cups of sauces, we simultaneously saw and were seen.

peter at BBQ

 

Through the delight of culinary familiarity and new taste discovery,

the act of creating,

and the gesture of giving,

spontaneous laughter expressed our

shared comfort and pleasure.

There on the moonlit beach, we connected.

 

 

That night left an imprint on the soul that resides within each of us and will forever be a light of hope, peace, and love.

My family arrived!

We explored,

and together we shared the wonders

of this strange place that is now my home.

My heart swelled so big

that my feet were lifted off the ground.

And then, in one swift moment, they left.

me with foot prints meliha

“Don’t be sad that it’s over; be happy that it happened.”

Dr. Seuss

I’ve always found comfort in this quote when sorrow over loss seems unbearable; and once again, I refer to this as my anchor as I navigate through the emptiness in my heart, the longing for my family, the emptiness of my apartment.

Indeed, I am truly grateful that they could come. Their presence here is a symbol of hope that I can endure a bit more, a surge of strength to give it my best shot as I continue in my work here.

Positivity and gratitude will guide my days as I hold these memories close to my heart.

me and eliza tree at safari

Christmas in Fujairah

“Never say never”, I know, but I’m going to say it.

I will never again complain about Christmas and all its accompanying annoyances:

  • Being bundled up so tightly that I can barely move
  • Hauling heavy boxes out of storage
  • Decorating the house
  • Too many cookies
  • Maneuvering through overcrowded parking lots
  • Wondering what to buy for gifts
  • Standing in lines to pay for nothing important
  • Buying gifts with virtual money
  • Clanging bells that make me feel nervous
  • Pipped holiday music that makes me feel nervous
  • Imagined conversations and arguments about gifting, “Jesus is the reason for the season”, traditions, and Santa – should we tell the truth to children or not?

Waiting for this day and spending more time alone than I’ve ever done in my life has made me appreciate the Holiday Season with a renewed spirit of gratitude.

This isn’t my first Christmas to be separated from family, but it’s the first time to not be with my children. On December 14th, the last day of school, I watched as my colleagues took off to countries all over the world: Nepal, India, The Netherlands, the UK, the States, South Africa, Denmark, … and my waiting began.

These days are like the longest night of my life – the night Eliza tried to be born. As she rocked back and forth in the birth canal, flirting with birth, then retreating again into the dark warmth of the womb, my doctor kept telling me, “maybe 15 more minutes.” It was in those “15 minutes” that were repeated again and again, like the movie “Groundhog Day”, that I managed to get through the waiting by breaking the time into small pieces that could be tolerated.

And so that is how I am getting through these waiting days as well.

As winter winds stir the desert, I read for a while, and then I take a walk. I sit by the pool and read some more and then I listen to the calls to prayer that mark the time between the setting sun and the rising moon. I cruise in circles on Dubai’s highways so I can take a yoga class, and then I circle some more so I can get back home. I buy nothing important, but I take my time when I stock up on shampoo and toothpaste. There are no cookies in Fujairah, so I scroll through FaceBook to see the cookies my friends are making.

As the winter winds stir the desert, I recall the plastic Christmas light bulb earrings and the bells that I always wear around my neck in this season, and I put on my Indian ankle bracelet because it is a string of tiny bells. I watch “Make-up tutorials for older women” and practice what I learn. I play solitaire. I watch the construction going on outside my window. I walk to a coffee shop and spend too much money on a tall, cold Frappuccino with extra caramel sauce. Time ticks on; I know that because I check my phone regularly to see the time and date.

Two hours have passed, then two more. Half a day, then a full day. The next day arrives. I am sure of that because I check the date and time on my phone again. And again.

The waiting is excruciating, and yet, it isn’t too bad, I think. I check my phone again.

I planned my Christmas day to the minute so that I would not feel the desolation of time that feels as if it is not moving:

  • Watch the sun rise over the Gulf of Oman
  • Eat falafel and eggplant as I drive through the mountains to a dried-up riverbed
  • Listen to silence in the valley between mountains
  • Dance with the wind that stirs the desert and whips my hair over my eyes
  • Swim in the pool at exactly noon
  • Watch a movie at the mall and eat buttery, overly salted popcorn and drink a cold diet Pepsi (carelessly forgetting that it might hurt my tummy later)
  • Watch the moon rise over the Gulf of Oman

Complaining about the inconveniences of the holiday season is a luxury. I had not thought of it that way before, but now that I’ve lived through the season without any of those things, I promise myself to never take those things for granted. Never again will I complain about the inconveniences of the Holiday Season because I will never forget this time of waiting.

 

The hours of Christmas day have gone now.

I did everything on my list:

christmas morning sunrise 12-17

Sunrise over the Gulf of Oman

 

The silence of the valley between the mountains

 

me at the pool on christmas

At the pool at high noon

 

Ferdinand-still

Ferdinand

 

Lapping waves at the Gulf of Oman

 

And now, my son and his father have boarded their plane out of JFK Airport and tomorrow I will drive to Dubai to meet them. Then together, as the winter winds stir the desert, the three of us will explore Fujairah and surrounding areas as we wait for my daughter and her boyfriend to arrive four days later. I hope that our time together is a time that feels as if it is not moving, though I do look forward to that magical moment when all five of us will be together!

Initiation – 2

Our newest Western teacher began teaching in September.

She is an amazing woman:

Intelligent

Creative

and full of positive energy.

I visited her classes several times and was always impressed with the range of diversity in her classroom activities and the way she shared herself so generously with the students. One of the things that really impressed me was that she didn’t have any behavioral problems!

Then the grades came out.

And then this warm, sensitive, amazing teacher got her initiation:

I was away from school that day, gone to a meeting, so I only have this story second-hand. First I was told by the other Western teacher who witnessed it, and then from the Emirati administrator who served as translator as well as in her role as administrator. Both stories were the same, though the conclusions were different. Note that the administrator prefaced her story by telling me that “students and mothers have a right to know their grades.” This sentiment was not voiced by the Western teacher who told me the story because she already knew that I would know that this “right to know” is a value we share and uphold.

Here’s the summary of the story, told by two different “sides”, but the language used and the events told were the same by both parties:

Two students who had always been labeled “excellent”, meaning that they had received “full marks” throughout their schooling received 8 out of 10 on one part of a project. (The project was graded on 4 different criteria and the rubric included a clear description of what was required to receive full marks, minus one mark, minus two marks, etc.).

The teacher was called to the principal’s office to discuss the grades with the students and their mothers who were already there, and had already told their grievances to the principal.

The room was chaotic.

The two Western teachers sat on the sofa; the mothers and students remained standing.

Mothers and students filled the room with their animated expressions of protests.

The students complained that the teacher hadn’t told them the criteria for the marking. (The teacher told them verbally and wrote it on the board, but she didn’t have any proof of that. However, she had also given them a handout with the criteria and she had that in her file. Students admitted they had received that handout.)

The students complained that they didn’t understand the criteria. (The teacher reminded them of the activities that led up to the submission of the project and had her notes on student papers that demonstrated her guidance in students understanding it. Students admitted they had understood those activities and the teacher’s feedback.)

The teacher had examples of other students’ work and showed the difference between full marks and 8 out of 10. The students and parents looked at the differences and appeared to understand, but refused accept it.

The Students and parents tried again and again to argue that the teacher wasn’t fair; that the teacher hadn’t done her job; that the teacher was incompetent; that the teacher didn’t know how to teach; that the teacher had ultimately failed.

Throughout it all, the administrator translated without taking sides as the mothers and students remained animated and angry and the teacher slid lower and lower on the sofa like a rapidly wilting flower.

At the end, realizing that the grades would not be changed and even the principal would not (could not?) enforce the change, mothers and students left the room.

There was no polite exchange of words as a conclusion, no eye contact or recognition of the teacher’s presence in the room, and no apologies for jumping to conclusions and accusations of failure to teach.

There was certainly no acknowledgement of the students’ role in their “low” grades.

After mothers and students left the room, the other Western teacher took the recipient of the onslaught of slander by the elbow and led her back to the teachers’ room.

 

Conclusion made by the 2 Western teachers:

  • Keep excellent records.
  • Add pictures of information written on the board.
  • Get students to sign declarations of receipt of rubrics and understanding of grading criteria.

 

Conclusion made by the Emirati administrator:

  • Well, now she understands our culture!

 

My response to that that last comment:

Really? You are telling me that the behavior of the students and their mothers was your culture?

The treatment of that teacher was

Harsh

Cruel

disrespectful.

Is that really your culture? Is this really what you want us to know about your culture? Is that really the face you want to show to the outside world?

  • We understand that the failure of the students and their mothers to acknowledge their own role in earning grades vs. being given grades indicates that 1) the only satisfaction they got from the meeting was being able to self-express their anger and frustration (not from receiving information – i.e., “their right to know”); 2) this will happen again and again if less than “full marks” are received; and 3) to avoid this in the future, teachers should not teach to learn, but rather do anything in the class and then give marks at the end that make the students and their mothers smile.
  • We understand that lying to save one’s own face is acceptable.
  • We understand that verbal abuse is acceptable.
  • We understand that our students, their parents, and even our colleagues and administrators do not appreciate or respect the concept of education (as now defined by the UAE Ministry of Education).
  • We understand that you resent your foreign teachers.

I’m surprised that you are satisfied that “now she knows [your] culture” because if this new understanding is correct, it certainly doesn’t paint you in a very good light.

Did we misunderstand something? You are welcome to explain and clarify. I’ve searched my mind and cannot find another way to interpret the words, the actions, the sounds of angry voices, and the lack of conclusion that acknowledges the accused.

And finally, while I agree that it is the students’ and mothers’ “right to know” why they got the grades they did, I do not believe that it is their right to treat another human in this way. Period.

This is not a matter of “culture” or “cultural differences”; this is a matter of decent behavior in an adult world.

 

My own initiation happened one year ago. I have not fully recovered, even yet. That experience changed me. It didn’t change me at my core; it changed my behavior. It shattered my sense of freedom and it produced walls around my experiences to protect my beautiful heart. I responded by going into my shell and withholding my gifts. I remain hesitant to give freely; I remain suspicious. I remain protective of my integrity. I struggle to remain open and to refrain from judgment.

New Clubs at School!

I believe in living my life with purpose and intent. I don’t expect everything to be profound, and I’m not particularly a serious person, though I definitely have a serious side to me. in fact, the term “fun-loving” has consistently been a common adjective attached to people’s impressions of me, and I think it is accurate. This “fun-loving” quality is a part of my authentic approach to things as I live with purpose and intent.

In addition, I am what people might call a “self-starter”; I am intrinsically motivated and able to work well on my own. I am disciplined and committed to seeing ideas and projects to completion. But at this point in my life, I am tired to doing things all on my own. I firmly believe in that “two heads are better than one” and I thrive on interactions that facilitate bouncing ideas off others and collaboration as ideas develop.

In my current situation, I am terribly missing the “team” component in my work. In my role as “Lead Teacher”, I am isolated and separated from the flow of work; I work alone most of the time and struggle with a lack of information and a lack of cooperation. Day after day, I work alone. Day after day, I can feel the creative synapses in my mind as if they are coated in mud: heavy, lethargic, weary.

The work week runs from Sunday to Thursday in the Arab world. Friday is the Holy Day. The school day is from 8:00 am to 3:05 pm, with 8 class periods per day. Until recently, Thursdays had only 7 periods, allowing students and staff to leave at 2:20 pm. As a part of the Ministry’s reform program, they wanted to incorporate club activities into the curriculum, so this term, on Thursdays, they added an extra period for clubs. I knew that because I’d received an email with the announcement; at our school however, no clubs were established.

There are currently 3 Western teachers at my school. We had heard a rumor amongst the Emirati teachers that club activities would begin “soon”, but never knew when, or what clubs, or how we could add our ideas and offer input to the program. We asked our colleagues many times, and each query was answered with “we don’t know.”

As the weeks wore on, the three of us discussed amongst ourselves what we might like to do for a club activity; we were enthusiastic about exercise and sports, crafts, music, story-telling, video projects, and the like. We were looking forward to the opportunity to connect with students in a fun way, sharing common interests and doing productive work. We received emails from the English language branch of the Ministry saying that clubs should be in place and that we were required to participate, but at our school, clubs had not yet begun. We continued to ask, and we continued to discuss and brainstorm our roles, and we continued to wait.

Then, one Thursday morning in mid-October, one of our Emirati colleagues came into our teachers’ room to tell us that we’d been assigned to clubs that would begin in 15 minutes. The other two Western teachers had been assigned to the “Recycling Club”, and I was assigned to “Creative Writing”.

I was devastated. Not because I didn’t want to do creative writing; I would have been fine with that, but because 1) there wasn’t time to prepare, 2) we hadn’t had the choice, and 3) I was on my own. All the teachers were grouped into pairs in their assignments – all except me. Of course, I was also disappointed that we were never asked to suggest clubs (all local teachers had been given the opportunity to suggest their ideas several weeks prior). I was disappointed that we were never given a choice as to which club we would like to lead (all local teachers had selected their top 3 choices via a form that was circulated at least two weeks before). And the perfectionist in me was frustrated that we had been denied the opportunity to prepare. Fifteen minutes?

Fifteen minutes later, the bell rang and students filled the halls. I went to our assigned rooms and waited. Students wandered around for a while, slowly meandering into one room or another asking each teacher what club was in that room, until eventually the halls cleared out and the school became quiet (~ish). I sat alone in the classroom thinking of what I could do if, and when, anyone came. Near the end of the hour, two students came to me and asked what I was teaching. They scrunched up their noses when I said, “creative writing”, discussed a bit between themselves, and then decided to come in and join me. They had no paper, no pens, and no ideas. Neither did I.

I asked the students questions about stories they liked, and then we began to weave a creation of our own, taking turns adding details and interesting twists to the plot. There was no writing involved, but that was fine as we had begun the thinking process. Soon the bell rang and the girls scampered out. I promised to bring supplies the following week so we could put our ideas into writing.

The clubs have never met again.

The term is now over.

I believe in living my life with purpose and intent. I don’t expect everything to be profound, but I do expect to find a way to make sense of the things that I do. This clubs experience continues to evade all my attempts to put a purpose on it. If this was just an outlier of a cluster of experiences, I would simply shrug my shoulders and think no more about it. But this is a typical example of my days’ activities. Day after day is filled with meaninglessness that emerges out of a fog of confusion.

 

Brown People Stories

Note: The following stories are from my own personal collection – things I either witnessed myself or was told firsthand by colleagues at work or my driver and friend, Zaheer.
Zaheer is one of the Brown People. He is from Pakistan and has been in Fujairah for 5 years. He works for the city taxi company and lives in a room with 8 housemates, all taxi drivers.
It is interesting to note that although I hear these stories with an emotional reaction steeped in my own cultural perspective, Zaheer does not share my sentiments. For him, these stories are simply the facts of his life. We often meet on Thursday evenings and share a meal. As we eat, we talk about our day and the events of our week. I feel anger and shock, but am careful not to express that too much as there is no reason to ignite anger where there is none; no reason to stir rumblings of dissatisfaction or a sense of injustice when I have nothing to offer in response.

A taxi driver’s basic rules

  • Drivers must pay their daily targets at the central office before 3pm each day (if they miss a day, they are fined 50 AED). The only exception to this is if the driver is out of town and unable to get to the office during their office hours. In this case, on the next day, the must submit the receipt from the meter showing the time and location to prove that he was out of town.
  • Drivers pay for their own gasoline.
  • Drivers pay for weekly car washes.
  • Drivers have to show evidence of working every day. 7 days a week. (Note: their hours are more flexible, so it is possible to miss a half day of work if they are sick, so long as they can pay their daily target at the head office.)
  • All drivers have a file and in the file, there is a debt sheet. A portion of the salary is withheld each month to pay off the debts. Debts are accrued for many reasons; here are the most common:
  1. If monthly targets are not met (the daily target is 300 AED; 30,000 per month);
  2. In the case of receiving a ticket for any reason (parking, speeding, stopping on the side of the road);
  3. In the case of an accident (regardless of who’s fault it is, the driver is financially responsible to repair the car);
  4. Fines for not paying their daily targets;
  5. Not having cash to pay for weekly car washes;

 

No time to be sick!

Zaheer’s friend is a construction worker. He recently had the flu, but without insurance, could not afford to go to the doctor. He needed to just stay home and sleep, but if he missed even so much as a half day of work, he would lose a full week’s worth of his salary.

You stink!

men praying A construction worker went to the mosque to pray on a Friday afternoon. It was high summer; the heat outside was over 100 degrees (Fahrenheit). He performed the ritual ablutions outside as mandated in Islam; face and neck, hands and arms, legs and feet. He was already kneeling in prayer when a local man came to pray beside him. But before the local man began his prayers, he shouted at the worker, saying that his stench was unbearable, and demanded him to move. The construction worker did as he was told. But because it was peak prayer time, the man had to wait outside until the prayer space thinned out and he could pray without offending anyone with his body odor.

 

The “SERVANTS” room

20161025_003709All the people at school have their own spaces. Students have their classrooms. Administration all have individual offices – some bigger than others, but all big enough for a large desk and chair, and several sofas and / or love seats for visitors.

All administration offices have large windows as well.

Clusters of teachers have department offices – all with small desks and chairs, cabinets, most with small refrigerators and tables for snacks, and all with sofas and love seats for guests. And all teacher offices have windows.

The maids have a small cubby space – 4 feet wide and 6 feet long. No windows. No furniture at all. The sign outside their office says “SERVANTS”.

We have 7 maids.

 

Giving to those in need

Last year was designated “the year of giving”. Teachers in each department had to “give” to someone in need. I suggested to the English department that we should give something to the maids. The local teachers said that the principal had already announced that if anyone wanted to do that, fine, but no one should give them blankets because “that might make them lazy”, meaning that they might be tempted to lie down in their little cubby space. We gave them a bag of oranges.

Clean up! It’s your job!

As I was walking through the door into the courtyard at school, I noticed 2 maids off to the side. Then there were 3 young students coming toward me. One of them threw down some trash and they all giggled and ran away.

I can’t be bothered

I was at the top of the stairs, but couldn’t come down because the staircase was crowded with students sitting on the steps. One of the maids was trying to walk up the stairs, but the students wouldn’t move. She asked them to move aside, but they refused. Some spat slanderous arguments her way. She ignored the insults, and continued to ask them to move over. Her pass was impossible.

It’s too heavy for me; you get it.

  • The maids at school are all women. They are less than five feet tall. Their work has given them muscles of steel:
  • They move desks and chairs, heavy bookshelves and cabinets in and out of classrooms and up and down stairs.
  • When deliveries are made to the school, the maids greet the delivery driver in the parking lot and carry the goods to the designated location.
  • Many of the teachers leave their car doors open and hand over their car keys to one of the maids when they walk into the school. The maids go to the car and gather the teacher’s bags and any other supplies and carries them to the teacher’s room.

me and servants

 

The inconvenience of “stupidity”

A local teacher told the story of her “stupid” housemaid at home. The teacher was emotional and animated in the telling of her story. The cause of her stupidity was that she didn’t know how to use a pressure cooker. (The main comes from a country where they don’t use pressure cookers. She’d never been taught. She was only following orders to make the rice in the pressure cooker.) The teacher heard a terrible bang and then screaming. When she went into the kitchen, she found her maid on the floor with her face in her hands and she was screaming. There was half-cooked rice and water all over the kitchen walls and floor. The maid had opened the pot to check on the rice (as she knew to do based on how to make rice in her home country) and burned her face when the pressure cooker exploded. The teacher was appalled by the woman’s stupidity, and furious that she then had to take her to the hospital. This story went on for nearly a month as the teacher complained about the cost of her medical bills and the loss of work as the maid recovered.

Hey, “Mohammad!”

All Brown Men are called “Mohammad.” No one asks their names. Even though the workers work for said employers for years, their names are not important.

The security guards at our school, for example, have been there for 3+ years, and when I asked other teachers the name of this one or that one, I was told, “Mohammad.” I asked the security guards what their names are: one is Riyaz, the other is Ali, and the third one is Hassan. None are named Mohammad.

My driver’s name is Zaheer, but his local clients (some have employed him for the past 5 years) all refer to him as “Mohammad.”

his name is zaheer

 

For more information, see my previous post: Brown People Facts and Stats.

Brown People: Facts and Stats

Basic numbers

  • Only 11.6% of the population in the UAE is made up of national Emiratis; the remaining 88.4% is comprised of expats.
  • Of the expats, only 12. 8% of the population is “other” (Western).
  • This means that over 75% of the population is in the category of “Brown People”.
  • The top five countries of origin of these workers are, in order of the highest population, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, and the Philippines.
  • In these countries, unemployment is high and wages are low; in many cases, the men cannot find jobs in their home countries.
  • The main employers are in retail, private homes (maids), construction, and transportation. The workers at school fall into the private homes category.
  • The majority of Brown People are men, with a ratio of 6 to 1, men to women, as the only work available for women is domestic, or, in the case of nationals from the Philippines, retail.
  • These Brown People make up 90% of the work force. Yes, 90%.

The UAE offers opportunities for immigrants to work and make money that they can then send home to help support their families.

But wait. Their salaries range from 100 to 300 US dollars per month. Yes, you read that correctly: 100 – 300 US dollars each month. Out of that salary, they pay their living expenses. Maids receive housing with the families they work for, so they do not have housing rental or utility bills, but they also have the lowest salaries of all Brown People. Most brown men (construction and transportation workers) live in single rooms where they rent a bed: 8-12 men are packed into a single room. These workers pay for their own work uniforms, cell phones and internet, toiletries, food, and any other personal items. They send money home when they can, but clearly, it isn’t very much.

Other notes

  • On construction sites, there are “camps” where the men live. The buildings that house them are temporary structures. After the workers buy their own beds, bedding, cooking tools, food, etc., often on loans from their employers, they are financially indebted for months, even years. The camps do not have hot water, and in many cases, electricity is either nonexistent or sporadic. At one camp near where I live, there are 7,000 men living in a 1.5 square kilometer space.
  • Most Emirati homes have a “maid’s room” which is only slightly bigger than a king-sized bed. Most families have a minimum of 2 maids; many have more. All maids live in the “maid’s room”.
  • Employers often do not provide any kind of health insurance. Brown People have to beg for financial assistance if they have to undergo any medical procedures.
  • Although labor laws exist that should protect the workers, the truth is that Brown People either do not know the laws, are afraid of their employer, or know that in the case of complaint, they will ultimately not be protected, and most likely, their jobs will be terminated.

Brown People are essentially the property of their employers

  • Employers take their passports and return them only if/when permission is given them to travel home.
  • They cannot take personal time off to rest, travel, enjoy an outing with friends, etc.
  • “Loans” are repaid by withholding a portion of the salary, but that means that basic needs cannot be met, so the employee takes out more loans and the cycle never ends.
  • When families sponsor a maid, she is at the disposal of her employer 24 hours a day, every day of the week.

Exhaustion: Brown People work, eat, sleep. Period.

  • Work days are 12 or more hours per day.
  • The work week is 7 days.
  • Time off is rare; in many cases, never.
  • Domestic workers are on duty 24 hours a day.
  • Workers do not have their own means of transportation.

Note: for personal stories, see my next post: Brown People Stories

Brown people

I can vividly remember sitting in the back seat of the car as my mother ran errands all over town, belting out my favorite song:

jesus and the children

Jesus loves the little children!

All the little children of the world!

Red and yellow, black and white,

They are precious in His sight!

Jesus loves the little children of the world!

 

 

 

I thought the song was amazing for two reasons:

1) that there were all those different colors of children in the world; and

2) that Jesus knew and loved them ALL.

As I grew, I came to understand that the words to that song shaped my life:

  • I wanted to know those children like Jesus did; and
  • I too, wanted to love them.

Throughout my life, I have always been drawn to people who are different from me. I notice them everywhere I go – from the corner gas station to the far reaches of the earth, and always, I seek to know, understand, and love.

 

Within days of arriving in the UAE, I noticed the Brown People.

They stood out to me, overshadowing everything else I saw. Brown People were oversized, shrinking all other images that filled my senses. As we rode on buses along the Emirates Road in Sharjah and Dubai, we passed beautiful homes built of stone. The houses peeked over stone walls like a sheltered princess peering out between bars in her golden quarters. The grounds were void of Emirati life; but surrounded by lines of Brown People. They were walking, working, working, working. Brown People lined the roadside, lay scattered about under puny trees, and dotted the rooftops of these elaborate sandcastles. I searched their weary eyes, covered in dirty rags protecting them from the mid-day sun; I searched for a hint of their humanity. The eyes were blank. They went back to work and I moved on my way.

street workers sitting

haircut workers in fujairah 2

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

The social hierarchy in the UAE is blatant. 

First, there are “normal” people. (White. Not white like me, more of an olive color, or perhaps a milky caramel color. Clearly, “color” is subjective, and “white” is just a word used to identify “normal”). These normal people are Emirati nationals. And this category is reigned by MEN.

Then there are “black” people. (African descendants who either immigrated as whole family groups generations ago, or the offspring of Emirati fathers and African mothers). These second rank people are also MEN.

After these two groups come the women. Normal holds a higher status than black in ranking women, just as with the men.

 

And then the human ranks begin to include the Brown People.

Brown People are at the bottom of society, ranked only by the kind of work they do, but ultimately, not differentiated. Brown People are all the immigrants from third world countries (India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines, Sudan, to name the largest populations). The Brown People are the workers.

It is important to note that Brown People with money (first men, then women), are higher than the workers, and they are tolerated and treated kindly when necessary. But the majority of Brown People are servants of one form or another.

The normal people at the top of the social hierarchy are ranked by money and status. They are flanked by arrogance and inflated egos. They interact with the world around them with shocking displays of entitlement. This sense of self as better is what justifies their behaviors toward, and treatments of, all the Brown People. This is what I have witnessed. It is blatant, not shielded by any excuses or explanations. In fact, when I inquired, it was explained to me that “God made the hierarchy.”

3 working men

 

Migrant workers in Abu Dhabi

 

female worker

Raised in the United States where “freedom and equality for all” was seeded into my DNA at conception and sealed into my consciousness through a Christian upbringing with stories like the Good Samaritan (he was a social outcast) and the Woman at the Well (she too, was a lowly nobody), I have always had eyes for those unseen, and a big heart for those on the periphery of society. Equality for all is a value I hold with deep passion.

It is no wonder then, that I ache when I see Brown People here in the UAE; there is no equality for all. Even though this is an American value, it is not limited to national borders. Equality for all has been taught and promoted by established religions since their beginnings. And yet, equality for all escapes our societies. All of them.

But today I am talking about this void in Emirati society.

I have gone through the whole spectrum of thought regarding the status and treatments of Brown People:

1) how we are the same because of our humanity: we share common interpretations of human experiences – kindness, anger, soft voices, harsh voices, smiles, grimaces, friendships, enemies, work stresses and work rewards, family interactions;

2) how we are the same because of our humanity: we share common emotions and a desire to express them – happiness, love, a desire to belong, hope, fear, anger, disappointment;

3) how we are the same because of our outsider status in this country: we all long for family, friends, familiar foods, familiar sounds, shared values;

4) how we are different because of the circumstances that have shaped our lives: my circumstances include electricity, central heat and air, hot water, clean water, educational opportunities; their circumstances do not;

5) how we are the same because of the current circumstances that form our experiences here in the UAE: we are all outsiders; we are all viewed with suspicion, we are seldom seen or heard or understood.

Through it all, I have no conclusion.

  • I cannot change anyone’s situation.
  • And I cannot change minds or perspectives.
  • I cannot create equality.
  • I cannot create justice.
  • I cannot love away the pain.
  • I cannot deliver enough kindness to heal broken souls.

Through it all, I simply observe.

Through it all, my broken heart beats hard and fast.