Several generations of women—mothers and daughters, sisters and aunties and nieces—gathered, cooking over an open fire behind the high walls of the family compound. We sat outside, not far from the wavy red dunes of the desert, enjoying the last of the fast-receding winter weather. The sun had begun its hurried descent into the Arabian Gulf, covering the desert sand with a glimmering gold glow. The mournful, throaty cawing of black and white fanned-tailed birds dipped in an out of the pink-tinged sky; lit charcoal, its acrid smell, rose and fell in alliance with the shifting outdoor light. I fell onto one of the purple silk and beaded Aladdin-like pillows scattered on the ground and listened to the women tell their stories, mostly in Arabic, but with an occasional English word to help me out.
“You are not alone,” Aliyah said as trays of meats and vegetables were laid at our feet. “Your sisters,” she said, gesturing to her large extended family.
I knew they were not empty words. What Emirati wives and mothers and sisters say, they mean, especially when they are in the company of other women. These strong powerful women speak their truth openly and without varnish. They revel in their intimacy, a company of women without men and do not waste time with half-truths and words meant to save feelings. There was no formality, no recognition of difference, only togetherness. They had accepted me, a woman from another culture, another language, another world.
“Shukran (thank you),” I said, working to contain a rising emotion.
I had only recently returned from the US, the second trip home in as many months. The first was to celebrate Christmas with my mother, the last Christmas we would spend together; the second was to publicly celebrate her life with family and friends and our little town neighbors. My mother—who had slipped further and further into Alzheimer’s—had finally succumbed to a whole host of age- and disease-related issues. As I sat in the courtyard with the sisters and nieces, mothers and daughters and aunties, I was mourning the emptiness of my life without my mother, without her particular brand of kindness and compassion, without the comforting naiveté with which she viewed the world. I mourned the long days of a life to come, knowing I would never again feel her fingers comb through my hair or hear her comfort on the other end of a phone call. On the evening I sat with the women of the desert, I felt the fear of a little girl facing life without her mom, a little girl in the body of a grown woman.
“Insha’allah, Allah will care for your mother,” Aliyah declared.
“No need to travel for family,” her sister declared.
“We are here,” a niece, holding her newborn, added.
“I’ve wondered,” I finally spoke, “why God brought me here. Now,” I said, nodding to the women around me, “I think I know why.”
“You are welcome,” Aliyah told me.
“Wa’Allah (I swear to God), you are welcome,” another sister affirmed.
“You see, miss,” Aliyah began, “we understand.” They too mourned the loss of a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, a sister.
The women stood and moved towards me without words and, one-by-one, touched me. On my shoulder. On my back. They cupped my face in their hands, kissed my cheeks, or clasped my hands between theirs. These simple gestures connected us in our pain, linking us together as a new kind of family. As sisters.
“Al hamdulillah (thank God),” I sighed overwhelmed by the gesture.
The women laughed at my Arabic, but echoed it, too, as an affirmation of their sincerity, “Al hamdulillah,” they said.
At the exact moment when I most believed in the sincerity of the women’s offer, doubts began to surface. I was never any good at sisterhood, not that I hadn’t tried; in fact, I had been trying all my life, all the time, with every interaction, but without much success. My own two sisters were much older than me—eight and twelve years older—and they were fighters. In conversations, they could swing easily from insults and screams to laughing. But not me; I would withdraw at the first sign of conflict and fold inward instead of engaging. While I never doubted their love for me, I never really felt they liked me.
While the Emirati women might have had the occasional fight, it was evident that they relied on each other for friendship and comfort. They were fierce defenders of each other and trusted advisors, too. The sisters worked together to raise their nieces until they were old enough to marry and raised their nephews until they could fully engage with their fathers’ interests. They cooked together and lived together. They laughed with and at each other. They knew each other’s secrets and dreams and worked to make them a reality.
“We do not know when,” one of Aliyah’s nieces told me; “Allah chooses.”
“Allah chose your mother’s time,” another agreed.
“Still, we must live,” Aliyah chimed in.
“Insha’allah (God willing),” a sister added.
“Insha’allah,” I repeated, but the phrase was empty, half-hearted. I felt the rawness of my mother’s too-recent death.
“Miss,” Aliyah called, “you are one of us.”
We had come a long way—Aliyah and me.
I met Aliyah when everything was new: culture, language, people, the desert, life. I had arrived in the Emirates less than a week earlier and had not yet found a place to live. As school was about to begin, I was running out of time. And money. I was confused, disillusioned, homesick, hot. Hotter than I had ever been, in fact. My emotions would swing from one extreme to another. I considered running away, returning to my family, my friends, my home, but I did not want to admit defeat after having left with such feigned confidence.
I was alone. Miserably, pathetically alone, but surrounded by many. All strangers. I began to live day-by-day, not thinking about creating a new life, but instead working only to get through twenty-four hours at a time. When the strategy did not calm the circling, swirling eddy of thoughts in my mind, I began to break my survival into hours. I needed to succeed at something, anything, even if it meant focusing on one thing long enough to competently start it, if not complete it. Learn to say helloin Arabic. Practice driving in a traffic circle. Find a friend. Buy a bed. Whatever it was that I chose to do, being able to focus on one thing—and one thing only—brought me a little closer to calm. As the hours piled up, so too did the days, and life began to take on a semblance of routine in a world of differences.
Although she was an Emirati woman fully enveloped in the black abaya andshayla of her culture and religion, Aliyah defied every stereotype I had carried with me from the US. She was strong and stubborn and had a penchant for fighting; in fact, she fought all the time. Every. Single. Fight. Mostly for the underdog. Often against men. And while I admired her grit, I learned quickly she was not a particularly smart fighter. Instead, she was scrappy, reckless, a little self-righteous, and, because of this, she made enemies. Mostly men. But some women, too.
In my case, she seemed intent on notliking me, and she was good at it. She looked at me through eyes that warned. Be careful, they said, this is my country. Since Aliyah was almost completely draped in a fine black cloth, her kohl-lined, deep brown eyes stood out, and I took their warning seriously. As the days turned into weeks and the fall semester was well under way, I began to see Aliyah as an obstacle.
Well into November, I was so frustrated with the way Aliyah undermined my decisions I decided to confront her as she ate lunch with the other Emirati women. My plan was strategic. I wanted the interaction to be witnessed; I wanted the other women to understand my motives. Without Aliyah’s spin.
“I know you don’t like me,” I began a barely controlled, very nervous rant.
All the women—initially startled by my intrusion—quickly righted themselves.
“Not true,” one woman said.
“She likes you,” another woman said.
“I just don’t trust you,” Aliyah smiled warmly, honestly, openly.
“Sit down,” Aliyah instructed, and I did.
The women carved up their lunches for me. A little bit of this. A little bit of that. Until a formidable lunch sat in front of me.
“Eat,” the women advised.
“Westerners come, take our jobs, accept a paycheck, and run away when they’ve had enough. Often with money. My country’s money.”
It was true what Aliyah had said. For years, Emirati banks had been known for loaning high sums of money to foreigners. Take up to twenty times your monthly salary, bank promotions read. Some did. Most, like me, took loans as a way to save; otherwise, we would spend it all in Dubai. Most paid back their debts. But some foreigners—too many foreigners—had been known to make off with a million dirhams or more, leaving the banks and the country in the lurch. They knew if they ever returned to the Emirates, they would be arrested and jailed in the middle of the blistering heat of the Empty Quarter—the unforgiving desert region between Abu Dhabi and Saudi. While I was not interested in taking such a risk, I certainly understood why Aliyah and the other women were skeptical of my motives.
Aliyah had been a counselor for years by the time I arrived, and she was very good at it. She had been called on to create the schedule, work on student discipline, rally the teachers, and prepare reports, and she had done all these things without recognition. Western educators seemed only to come to collect a paycheck, not work to improve the school system, and this fact made Aliyah distrustful of any new Western administrator. Even a woman.
When the administrator before me ran away from the country, he left the school in a power lurch, taking a substantial amount of “borrowed” money with him and every key to every door in the school, just for good measure. Another Westerner. Another scandal. In the interim, Aliyah kept the school running, but she was not even considered for the job. Instead, they chose me, a stranger, a foreigner.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“They never stay,” Aliyah’s cousin told me. “Westerners, I mean.”
“I have nowhere to go,” I said; “I have children.”
“You let Hassan do bad things to us,” Aliyah said.
Hassan, the Emirati Vice Principal, whose office sat next to mine was a short-fused-alpha-male misogynist. Early on, he decided I needed a husband, and he would be the one to find him. To Hassan, marriage was a method of controlling an independent-thinking woman; a husband would make me more traditional, less irrational. Or so he thought. “And women,” Hassan told me, “want a man’s protection. To be his queen.”
After a few weeks, Hassan decided the quickest way to marry me off was to marry me himself. It did not matter to him that he already had three—mostly unhappy—wives.
“Miss Jackleen,” Hassan said one day; “Emirati men will steal your money.”
“No worries, Hassan, I don’t have any.”
“They’ll take it anyway. But not me, Miss Jackleen. I wouldn’t steal your money. I have too much money. Too much,” he said as he pulled out his wallet, bursting with dirham.” Only three wives, Miss Jackleen,” Hassan winked. “Three new ‘sisters’ for you. Yes?”
When I ignored his inglorious proposal, acting dumb instead of jumping at the chance, even my professional relationship with Hassan fizzled. How dare I not accept him? he must have thought, a not-very-young woman. And from that moment, Hassan smiled to my face, but worked behind my back to bring about my demise. I knew first-hand how the Emirati ladies felt and decided to tell my Hassan story to the women. When I finished, Aliyah moved towards me; I instinctively pulled back. Undaunted, she reached out and kissed me. Right cheek first. Then, left. Then, right again. Just like Emirati do. By kissing me, she had reached out across the cultural divide to show me that she admired my strength.
“He doesn’t like me either,” I said weakly, not sure how to respond.
Over the next few months, Aliyah and I worked together. We did not always agree, to be sure. But we had developed a mutual respect for each other. Once in a while, I offered Aliyah advice to help her weather the male-dominated hierarchy of the school system. Especially Hassan. After listening to Aliyah and Hassan fight one afternoon, I wandered over to her office.
“Aliyah,” I knocked.
“Come in, miss.”
“Jackie. Call me Jackie.”
“I heard you with Hassan today.”
Aliyah burst into laughter, “He was really angry. Right, miss?”
For the next few minutes, Aliyah recounted the battle. She never missed the opportunity to provoke him, she confided in me. “I have my reasons,” she said.
“Aliyah, he has power.”
She waved her hand to dismiss the warning, “My brother is a diplomat. High up, miss.”
“But Aliyah, the manager takes his side.”
“Rashida? I don’t care about her,” Aliyah spit.
“He was leaving you alone, wasn’t he?”
But Aliyah dismissed the recent détente with suspicion.
“There is a saying in the US,” I began again, trying another tactic; “let sleeping dogs lie.”
“Americans like dogs. More than babies, I think,” Aliyah interrupted me.
Although her statement may have had a tiny bit of truth to it, especially in comparison to the way most Emirati’s viewed dogs, I was worried that she may have missed the point, so I launched into an explanation of the idiom.
“I understand, miss.”
“Jackie. Please. Call me Jackie.”
“As you like, miss.”
I left Aliyah’s office feeling like something new had passed between us. By imparting a bit of American pragmatism, I believed Aliyah would be more careful with Hassan, less likely to put herself in danger by arguing with him.
“That went well,” I breathed as I left her office.
Later that day, just before everyone left work, Aliyah stepped into Hassan’s office. Because my office door was open, I could hear everything that was being said between the two. Aliyah seemed pleasant enough. Hassan asked her how her day had been. She recounted a discussion with the parent of a tenth grader. He told her good job. As Aliyah turned to leave his office, she announced to Hassan that Americans had an interesting saying. The tone of her voice had changed, and Hassan knew that a battle would ensue. So did I. I felt Hassan’s eyes burn through the office wall we shared.
“Sleeping dogs must lie,” Aliyah said triumphantly.
Okay, I thought, she’s offering him an olive branch.
“Say what you mean,” Hassan barked in Arabic.
“It means youare a dog. A lying dog. You are a dog that lies,” she spit, her voice getting progressively louder with each sentence.
Oh shit, I thought.
“You’re calling me a dog? Hassan asked in Arabic.
“Yes. If you spoke American, you would understand,” Aliyah said.
“Get out!” Hassan screamed.
Aliyah left Hassan’s office, giggling in triumph, and strutted past my door with a toothy grin. She winked at me sitting sheepishly behind my desk. That afternoon, my already non-relationship with Hassan tanked, but the Emirati women began showing up at my office door to show me family pictures and offer tea. I had given them the perfect insult with which to antagonize Hassan.
After being transferred to another school in the district, Aliyah and I maintained a polite friendship. She called from time to time. I visited with her and her sisters. I took presents; she provided gossip. She gave advice as I began to learn Arabic. “Don’t talk like Fadi (my husband),” she wrinkled up her nose in distaste; “Lebanese sound like women.” We were friendly, but not really friends. And that is where our relationship might have remained except for the death of my mother.
“You are not alone,” Aliyah said as she welcomed me one dusky winter evening behind the walls of her family’s compound. It was there that I joined several generations of women—mothers and daughters, sisters and aunties and nieces—to cook over an open fire not far from the wavy red dunes of the desert. I heard the caws of the desert birds and smelled the acrid smoke of the burning charcoal. I watched the sun dip over the sand and disappear into the Gulf. And it was on that night that I became a woman of the desert.
BIO: Jaclyn Maria Fowler earned a doctorate in education from Penn State and an MFA in creative writing from Wilkes University. She is an adventurer, a lover of culture and language and people in general. Fowler is an American woman of Irish descent married to a Palestinian man, and she works as the English Faculty Director and Associate Professor at American Public University System (APUS). Fowler is the author of “It is Myself that I Remake.”