U is for United Arab Emirates

We moved to the United Arab Emirates in 1996. Abu Dhabi was my second Foreign Service assignment in the Middle East, and my third living experience in the region.

When Ramadan came around our first year in Abu Dhabi, I thought I knew what it was all about, having lived more than two years in Iran and then two in Qatar. I already knew that I hadn’t learned much about the month in Iran, however, because not all restaurants closed during the day; they just pulled down the shades so that those fasting wouldn’t have to see those who weren’t. But in Qatar, all restaurants, except those in the big hotels, closed until sundown, which was announced by a canon being shot off along the corniche. Ramadan, therefore, was a dreary place for most of us in Doha. We all looked forward to its end.

The restaurants in Abu Dhabi remained closed during the day during Ramadan, but it didn’t seem like the dismal month I recalled in Doha. The local employees talked about Ramadan with joy. Instead of focusing on all those hours when they couldn’t eat, they celebrated the dishes that were most often served only during Ramadan and being together with family and friends each evening. I began to think of Ramadan more as a month-long Thanksgiving celebration than a burden and inconvenience to have to get through.

Our first Abu Dhabi Ramadan, we were invited to many evening iftar, or breaking of the fast, meals hosted by my contacts at the embassy. This was no different from my experiences in Qatar. But perhaps because the traditions were more familiar I learned more of what I hadn’t known before. One example: the food that was prepared for these large fast-breaking meals was also distributed to those in the city who didn’t have the means to provide such lavish meals for their families. With the wealth of the country being so well-known, it was a surprise for me to learn that not every Emirati was so self-sufficient. But everyone in the country had the opportunity to join in the evening meals of Ramadan.

But the main reason for the shift in my thinking came during our second Ramadan in Abu Dhabi. One afternoon, Huda, the wife of one of the local employees who worked for me, Mackawee, called me at work to tell me not to cook anything that evening because she planned to bring a typical Yemeni Ramadan meal for Alex and me. I was surprised and pleased, especially because I couldn’t think of anything that I had done to deserve such treatment. I appreciated Mackawee, but I don’t think that I treated him with any more respect or regard than my predecessors. But Huda decided to share the joy of the holiday with us. She brought a number of typical Yemeni foods, explained what each was, and then left us to enjoy the meal so that she could spend the evening with her husband.

The following year, our last in Abu Dhabi, I brought up the idea of hosting an iftar at the embassy to a number of the women who worked there. We agreed it would be an excellent way to encourage more of a community feeling among the employees and their families, so we started by making a list of the foods we each thought of as typical Ramadan food.

I was surprised to learn that what was typical on the Arabian peninsula wasn’t necessarily typical in Jordan or Egypt or Lebanon, countries represented by some of the women who organized the meal. So coming up with the menu was not so simple. We agreed that the meal must begin with fruit juice and dates, the items the most devout ate first to regain their strength after which they would pray and return for the rest of the meal. For the meal, we had lamb and rice and stuffed vegetables and salads and many other items I can no longer remember. For dessert, I contributed the other item I always thought of as typical of Ramadan, Oum Ali–an Egyptian dessert, the richest bread pudding in the world.

Most of us had to prepare the food at home and bring it back to the embassy to assemble the table. Just before sundown, the local employees began to return, with their families. As we saw the gathering numbers, we had a moment of panic that we wouldn’t have enough food. But we had more than enough.

Once everyone who had returned to the embassy compound had eaten, we brought plates of food to those who never seemed to get away from their desks. And we brought plates to the Marine on duty as well as the Marines whose home was one of the adjacent buildings. And still there was food left over, so we brought plates to the police guards who were on duty outside the embassy compound walls.

As we cleaned up after the meal, I learned that several of the women who had helped with the meal had never before participated in hosting an iftar meal because while they were Arabs from Jordan, Lebanon, or Egypt, they were Christians. The entire event was more of an adventure than I had thought.

Two years later, I was in Yemen and the beginning of Ramadan coincided with Thanksgiving that year. Since the Muslim calendar is lunar, it is 11 or 12 days short of the solar calendar. Ramadan and all other Muslim holidays occur earlier in the solar calendar in successive years. The coincidence of Thanksgiving with what I had come to think of as a month of Thanksgivings prompted me to mention how we observed Ramadan in Abu Dhabi my last year.

As soon as I mentioned it, my secretary Sumayya suggested the local employees should host a similar iftar meal in Yemen.  She brought the idea to the local employee association. They agreed. And within a week, we had plans for a Yemeni-American Iftar-Thanksgiving event on a Thursday (Gulf Saturday) evening. The local staff set up Bedouin-style tents on the grounds of the embassy compound and brought in big pillows to line the interior of the tents for casual lounging while we ate. The Americans brought foods we thought of as typical for Thanksgiving and the Yemenis brought food they typically ate for Ramadan.

No one went away hungry.

Q is for Qatar

The summer of 1987, before I arrived in Doha in October of that year, the governments of Qatar and Bahrain adopted threatening postures towards one another, the result of a dispute about the Hawar islands off the coast of Qatar. Both countries claimed the islands, which can be seen from the western coast of Qatar on a clear day and are miles away from Bahrain.

The islands are uninhabited, but are in an area with rich petroleum reserves. The increased tension between the two countries led to the closing of selected air lanes in the Gulf* to international flights. The US government was concerned that the closure of the air lanes put both commercial and military flights at risk since Iran and Iraq were also battling one another at the time, and their battles involved guns, not just words.

For a short period of time Bahrain severed communications links between the two countries. This proved to be a challenge to the embassy in Qatar. Without telegraphic communications, no reporting on the war could be sent from Doha to Washington. Instead, telegrams had to be printed and carried by non-professional courier from Doha to Bahrain where they were sent from the embassy in Bahrain. The fact that all reporting about the dispute, covering both the Bahraini and the Qatari perspectives, arrived in Washington with the name of the US Ambassador to Bahrain at the bottom was a source of some embarrassment to the US Ambassador to Qatar, I was told.

I saw one small remnant of the dispute–a T-shirt ordered by the Doha Hash House Harriers that included the outline of the country of Qatar on the front where a pocket would have been. In addition to the neatly printed country boundary, an indistinct blob made by a permanent Magic Marker appeared to the left of the outline. Qatari Customs would not release the shirts to the Hashers until they added something to reflect that the islands off Qatar’s west coast were part of the country.

Hearing the story from my colleagues on my arrival reminded me of a Ziggy cartoon I had seen just before leaving the US for Doha. In the cartoon, Ziggy was watching TV as the announcer said, War broke out today between two insignificant little countries you probably haven’t heard of.

Sometimes life is just as funny as a cartoon.

FYI: The dispute between Qatar and Bahrain was settled in 2001 with Bahrain being named the owner.

*The Gulf referred to here has two names, depending on which side of it one sits. When I was in 8th grade geography, I learned its name was the Persian Gulf. On the southern side of that body of water, however, it is known as the Arabian Gulf. I saw atlases on sale in Qatar where the word “Persian” had been blacked out, again with black Magic Marker. I choose to refer to it as either “The Gulf” or “The Gulf that has two names.”

O is for Oman

Oman sparkles. In the three years, from 1996 to 1999, that we lived in Abu Dhabi, we drove to Oman several times. And every time, we felt a difference when we crossed the border. The streets looked as though they had just been swept for our arrival. The rocks at the side of the road washed and sprayed with oil or shellac so they would shine in the sunlight.

In exchange, Omanis expect those who live in the country to keep their property clean, too, especially cars. In fact, there is a law against dirty cars, with fines ranging from about $30 to $120. Since the roads are so clean, it’s unlikely your car will pick up dirt just from being driven–unless you drive off road.

Of the countries on the Saudi peninsula, Oman is better prepared for tourism than the others. Most times we drove to Oman, we stayed at the Al Sawadi Beach Resort for at least a day, to relax and wind down. We just wanted to hang around the beach, collecting shells and dipping toes into the water. But it was clear we could have arranged to take part in any number of other activities as well–diving or snorkling on water or tennis or horseback riding on land. Trips into the desert for camping and camel rides can be arranged as well.

Some of the most elegant hotels and restaurants can be found in Oman’s capital, Muscat, including the Al Bustan Palace, one of the most beautiful hotels I’ve ever seen.

For more information about traveling in Oman, check out one of the following travel guides:

Lonely Planet Oman, UAE & Arabian Peninsula (Travel Guide)

The Rough Guide to Oman

Insight Guides: Oman & the UAE

Oman (Bradt Travel Guide)

J is for Japan

A plain wooden trunk in the basement of the house of my childhood was off limits. Its contents included my parents’ mementos from the days before we children arrived. The kewpie doll my dad won for my mom at the fair, some dish towels mom had embroidered for her hope chest, comic books that Dad must have picked up to read on long sea voyages when he served in the U.S. Merchant Marines.

It also included items associated with far away places, places I was determined to see. Occasionally, while we kids were in the basement, Mom or Dad would open it and pull things out: a grass skirt from the Philippines; a silk hula skirt with skimpy bra top from Hawaii; a gaudy, child-sized, yellow kimono with bright red, embroidered dragons facing one another at chest height from Japan.

Dad brought these pieces of exotica to Minnesota from ports he visited during and after World War II. The most important ones for me were from Japan: a silk kimono and a fan. The kimono — not the tawdry yellow one — was elegant, purple from the neck and shoulders down with a scene of white cranes flying among the clouds above snow-covered mountain tops from the hem at the bottom up to the knees. The kimono was lined with the softest red silk, softer than any fabric I could remember touching my skin.

The fan’s two wooden handles were a shade of neither red nor brown, but both at the same time. When opened, the semi-circular fan, silk on one side with a stiffer fabric on the other, to help it keep its shape, displayed a mountain in the distance with graceful tree branches with white blossoms in the foreground.

I loved to put on the kimono, even though the two feet with the mountain scene spilled around my feet on the floor. I struggled to open the fan correctly. I didn’t want to tear the delicate, painted paper. I needed both hands and had to remind myself which way to move the handles to separate them and to reveal the fan.

These two items, more than anything else, opened a door to my curiosity that demanded I learn as much as possible about Japan and the people who lived there.

Japan was my first love, long before boys ever began looking interesting.

When I started school, I discovered there were books in its library about Japan. I read them all, starting with the bottom shelf (for those reading at the first-grade level) and then continuing up the graded shelves. By the third grade, I had finished all the books, up through those on the sixth-grade level shelf. I turned to books about other countries, such as nearby China, but they didn’t hold my interest. Learning about Japan had become a dream.

Someone else in my Minnesota hometown also had a dream.  Miss Ingram, our school music teacher, dreamed of igniting passion for music among her students.  Each year she wrote and organized two musical productions, operettas, one for the third and fourth graders and one for the fifth and sixth graders.

In sixth grade, the title of our operetta was “Around the World in 60 Minutes.” Two students led the audience on a tour of countries represented by songs the rest of us sang. One of my pieces was the Gilbert and Sullivan tune “Three Little Girls From School Are We” from The Mikado.

I will never forget wearing the purple silk kimono from the basement trunk in that production.  And my infatuation with Japan got an even bigger boost when Miss Ingram taught the three of us how to open our fans one-handed with the flick of the wrist.  By then, my dream had grown from learning as much as possible about Japan to wanting to visit Japan.

In the following years, my dream of visiting Japan took a back seat to the shorter-term goals of finding and keeping friends, passing tests, getting boys to notice me, and figuring out how I could escape the small town I felt I was stuck in.  Eventually I did make it out of the Midwest, all the way to San Francisco. I enrolled at San Francisco State University and completed their Masters of Arts program in Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL).

In my first course, the instructor demonstrated two approaches to teaching a foreign language. Her sample language was Japanese. And that switched my dream of visiting Japan back on. Now I wanted to live and work there.

But there weren’t many jobs in Japan when I completed my training. Instead, Iran was the place with jobs open to Americans. I signed a two-year contract and headed there with 10 other American ESL teachers.

At the end of my contract, I finally made it to Japan, the final stop in my nearly three-week, multi-country trip home, through India, Thailand, Indonesia, Korea, and finally, four days in Tokyo.  Four days when I smiled so much, my jaw ached by the end of the day. I was in Japan!

I went to a Japanese tea ceremony. I climbed to the top of the Tokyo Tower. I saw a Kabuki theatre production. I went to a nightclub. I wandered through a park with streams, bridges, flowers, and trees aesthetically arranged to bring calmness to those visiting.

I bought my very own blue and white silk kimono, though the prices in Tokyo were so very high I couldn’t afford one to compete with the beauty and elegance of the purple one. Mine was only knee-length and had only geometric designs along the bottom. I bought trinkets to bring home for family members and watched in wonder as the smiling and polite salespeople wrapped them in decorative paper as if the packages were gifts to me.

Those four days in Tokyo realized enough of my dream, but opened up my hopes for seeing more of the world. I also drew two important lessons from the experience, one immediately and one that only came years later.

First, I learned that working steadily to accomplish a goal makes the problems and disappointments, both small and large, shrink to insignificance. I never give up.

Second, years later my parents, my husband, and I were crossing the mall in Washington, DC.  By then, I was working for the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer and this was my parents’ first visit.

While we waited at an intersection for the light to change, a middle-aged Japanese man approached my father to ask for directions.  After pointing the way for him, my father joined the three of us. Dad was pensive and finally commented that fifty years earlier, while he was in the Pacific in the Merchant Marines, he would never have imagined that he would one day be speaking to someone from Japan in the capital of our country.

Hearing that comment made me realize how generous and understanding my parents were because they never discouraged me from my dream of going to Japan. My dream began so shortly after the end of World War II, yet neither of my parents tried to dissuade me from my interest in the country of our former enemy.

Instead, they encouraged the spark of interest with the hope that it would lead to other interests and a love for learning. They were right.

The purple, silk kimono was the spark. It ignited my curiosity which led to my nearly thirty-year exploration as a resident, not a tourist, of several foreign countries so small you’ve probably never heard of them.

I is for Iran

I loved it and I hated it on the same day every day for 882 days. It was Iran, and my love-hate relationship began on April 2, 1975, at the start of what I referred to as the world’s most elaborate April Fool’s gag.

Two years before, I hadn’t thought such an adventure possible. At that time, I lived in Berkeley, California, with my husband and our cat named Kitty. I planned to enroll in graduate school in the winter. Without warning my husband told me he thought we should divorce. It was simple and amicable: we had no property to split, no home to sell, no children. But simple doesn’t mean painless.

For most of the first year in grad school, I had nightmares, dreaming that I either chased my husband or was chased by him. My subconscious wanted to hit him, to hurt him, but I never caught him. And I didn’t want to be hurt any more, though why I thought he was trying to do so remains a mystery of the dream state. I woke up exhausted. Then, for months I had no dreams at all.

Toward the end of year two, he appeared in a dream, a guest at a party. I introduced him to other partygoers, referring to him as a friend. No chase scenes, no anxieties. The difference was so pronounced I wrote him a letter describing the dream. He wrote back, admitting that he hadn’t handled suggesting our separation well, asking for forgiveness, though not reconciliation.

Two weeks later, the University of Southern California offered me a job in Iran. The timing was right. Painful as it was, I knew that if we hadn’t divorced, I wouldn’t be at the beginning of this adventure. A door had to close for me to see the open door next to it.


April 2 began in London where the New York to Tehran Iran Air flight picked up a small number of passengers for the final leg. Passengers originating from New York filled most of the seats. Ten of us from USC—nine teachers and the man who hired us, Bill, the director of USC’s American Language Institute—joined them. We stood out from the rest. We were taller. Our skin, lighter. We were foreigners.

I hope there is space in the overhead compartment for my violin. There had been no problem on the flight from Los Angeles to London, but that plane was much bigger: two seats on each side of the plane with a center section of five seats across. So large, I could imagine I was on a train or a boat, not a plane, as I wandered up and down the aisles.

This plane had three seats on either side of the aisle, the size I was used to for domestic flights from California, my adopted home, to Minnesota, my birthplace. The overhead bins reduced headroom, making the plane feel even smaller. The thought of spending six hours shoulder-to-shoulder, elbow-to-elbow, and knee-to-knee on such a small plane brought on anxiety, especially since my boarding pass was for the middle seat. There was nowhere to escape the crowding, like my 4,000 member hometown church’s pews at a Christmas or Easter service.

“Hey, Roger,” Annie said. “Is this our row? I’ve been counting them.” She pointed to the strange symbol under the overhead bins and held up her boarding pass.

Annie and I had been roommates in San Francisco. She wanted to teach in Spain. But my offer came through first, and she traded being faced with finding a new roommate and simultaneously looking for a job for a guaranteed position just a bit east of her goal.

“Yeah, this is row 22,” Roger said. He had been in the Peace Corps in Ahwaz, Iran, ten years before, the only one of us who had lived in Iran. “They use Hindi numerals in Iran. The 1 and 9 look similar to our numbers. The rest are like chicken scratches. You’ll get used to them.”

Annie squeezed her way to the window seat. I pushed and rearranged the bags and bundles already in the overhead compartment above our seats until my violin case fit and then settled in the center seat. Roger took the aisle seat, to keep us protected from intrusion by prying eyes and hands across the aisle, he said.

Ahead of us, Bob and his wife, Nancy, stood in the aisle next to row 21. Already in that row, I saw a man wearing a heavy winter jacket in the window seat. Boxes tied with twine and fabric bundles filled the area under the seat in front of him as well as under the middle and aisle seats. An additional case rested on each of the two otherwise empty seats, as though they marked them as saved for companions. But Bob and Nancy’s boarding passes bore 21B and 21C.

“Excuse me, sir,” said Bob to the man in 21A. “Are these your suitcases?”

“Sorry, no Eengleesi.”

Bob looked up, noticed a woman in uniform with the Iran Air logo on her hat, and motioned to her. Pointing to the items on seats 21B and 21C, Bob chose his words diplomatically, not wanting a confrontation, simply pointing out the problem, just as any other Midwesterner would do. “These spaces are already full,” he said. “Where can we put our carry-on?”

“You shouldn’t have brought so much with you,” the attendant replied and then broke away to continue moving to the front of the plane. Nancy’s mouth dropped open.

“Welcome to Iran,” said Roger. “You’ll get used to it.”

“I have Valium,” offered Annie. She and I had laughed when her doctor handed over a container with thirty 1-mg tablets of the anxiety-reducing medication in response to her request for something to deal with motion sickness. She had expected him to give her two or three tablets of Dramamine. Before we left, Annie counted out fifteen tablets for me and kept fifteen for herself. We never dreamed we would take them all. But by the time I left Iran 822 days later, I had replaced my fifteen tablets many times. No prescription required. Even 10-mg strength.

“Let me help,” said Roger as he got out of his seat and took one of Nancy’s bags. He squeezed it into an overhead bin a few rows behind us. Bob did the same with another bag several rows in front. The man in the window seat picked up the parcels on the middle and aisle seat and placed them on his lap, apparently prepared to hold them for the entire flight.

“You better take the middle seat,” Roger said to Nancy. “You can stuff your purse between you and the guy next to you. It’s a better option than the aisle seat. No one will bother Bob when walking down the aisle.”

Once all passengers were seated, a male flight attendant read the standard safety instructions, first in Farsi and then in English. During the announcement, I watched a second male attendant across the aisle lean back as he lowered both his seat and the seat-back tray, and lit up a cigarette. The final statement of the standard instructions also differed from what we expected: “Let us know if there is anything we can do to make your flight comfortable.”

“Don’t they usually say ‘more comfortable’?” I asked Annie and Roger.

“Welcome to Iran,” Roger said one more time.

Ten hours after leaving London, we arrived in Tehran after a stop in Ahwaz to clear customs and immigration. Bill would return to LA once USC sent someone as director of the Iran program. Annie and I were the last two teachers Bill hired, just two weeks before we left. I was single and, at 26, the youngest of the group. I was also the most naïve.

The above is the opening to the draft of my first memoir with the working title Stuck in Stage Two: A Memoir of Cross-Cultural Confrontations and Misunderstandings.

D is for Doha

When I got off the plane late one October evening in 1987 in Doha, my first thought was Who left the oven door open? The heat assaulted me at the top of the stairs set up on the tarmac to facilitate passengers getting off the plane. I had never felt such heat.

Doha seemed like a sleepy little town when I lived there from 1987 to 1989. I could barely find any information about it before I left. So instead, I read all about Saudi Arabia, including a cultural guide put together by members of the US embassy staff in Riyadh to help those assigned to the Kingdom prepare for life in an almost entirely gender-segregated society. Armed with that mis-information, I brought videos of every movie I ever wanted to watch, every book I ever thought I’d read, and every board game I could get my hands on. I expected to spend most of my two-year assignment there indoors, more specifically, in my own home.

But Doha was a surprise in so many ways. Those videos, books, and games I brought? Most of them stayed in the boxes. Of all the overseas assignments I had, none offered more to do than Doha.

My first weekend in Doha coincided with the first visit by a cabinet-level official, the Secretary of Energy, to the country of Qatar. I spent the two days before the visit traveling around the city to see all the places the Secretary would be during his very short stay. The evenings were spent in the homes of other staff members at the embassy, entertaining the White House advance team members so they didn’t have to stay cooped up in their hotel rooms.

That week turned out not to be exceptional. Every evening there were dinners, receptions, or other events I was invited to attend. Many evenings, there were both dinners and receptions or receptions and cultural performances. If I managed to spend an evening at home, it was usually in the company of 20-30 other people, support staff sent on temporary duty from Washington or expatriates from the US or Europe whose employers were important contacts for the embassy.

Doha will always have a special place in my heart. I met my husband there, one of the British expats in Qatar. The country of Qatar relied on expats from all over the world–still does. When I lived there, the population of the country was around 300,000, only one third of which were native Qataris. Two thirds came from somewhere else–India, Pakistan, the Philippines, other Arabic-speaking countries, Europe, and North America.

Doha has a special place in the hearts of most European and American expats who lived there. Evermore after, when I run into someone I learn once lived in Doha, I see wistfulness in the eyes as we begin to share stories of how much we enjoyed living in that tiny little city in a very small country. As a small town Midwestern girl, I felt entirely at home in Doha, once I got used to the heat.