Some Jet-Lagged Reflections on the Middle East and Islam

I don’t know if it’s stupidity or a renewed sense of “helping people is important, dammit” but after a 34-hour trip from Doha to Danforth and a shortish but passionate love affair with my bed, I made questionable decision #1 (I answered the phone) and followed it almost immediately by QD #2 (I agreed to help Travis move).

This actually worked out okay in that it helped marshall my thoughts a bit.  Both Trav and Alan (intrepid partner in questionable decision-making) are pooh-poohers of all that is social media so when they asked about my trip, they were working from the blankest of slates.

“What’s the Middle East like?” asked Alan.  “And is that how you pronounce ‘Qatar’?”

**SIDE NOTE: Ever since I did/did not date that Navy fellow, who was frequently shipped off to Qatar in between his deployments to Rivalries and OPT, where he flexed obnoxiously while wearing closed-toe athletic socks with flip-flops (it occurs to me that my history of questionable judgment is long and varied), I have wondered how on God’s green (exception: the Middle East) earth to pronounce that country.  “Where’s Flex?” people would ask, and “ohhhhh,” I would hem and haw, “like overseas or something.” Because I did not know how to pronounce Qatar.  But guess what?  The embassy folk who briefed us (best briefs ever, excluding underwear) admitted candidly that there were two ways and both were acceptable.  Yay!  Clarity.  So you can either say “Cutter” or “Ka-TAR”.  And while you go ahead and choose one of those for future reference, I’ll just be sitting here practicing the third cool guttural way I heard the locals go.

Anyway, I couldn’t answer Alan’s first question.  What IS the Middle East like?  I studied my face off (ouch) for two weeks previous to the trip, reading anything and everything about Islam and plumbing a most helpful set of students and colleagues for tips and tricks about Arabic and dressing myself.  I got pretty good at dressing myself.

The rest is complicated.

Islam itself is gosh-darn fascinating, and I wish people knew more about it before doing the much more harmful and destructive pooh-poohing than Alan does toward, for example, Facebook.  And before I go on, can we mutually agree that extremism is not at all representative of a religion?  This is true for Charles Manson as well as for ISIL (time out while I look up what “the Levant” means, because I’ve been meaning to do that ever since the last “S” became an “L”.  Okay basically it’s a big ole chunk of the Middle East, encapsulating parts of Syria, Iraq, Saudi, and Egypt, plus Jordan and Lebanon and whatever disputed things are happening around the Jerusalem area right now.  It’s good to have a grasp of current events, even if that grasp forces you to take three minutes out of each day now to send the “hey, I’m paying attention and Betsy DeVos is the latest in dangerous crackpot appointments- please vote against her, thanks” emails to the Senators King and Collins, whose names together sound suspiciously like a duo of whiskey shots now that I think about it.)

Where was I?  Oh!  Islam.

Yeah, turns out this is an incredibly peaceful and inclusive religion, if looked at through the eyes and intention of Muhammad.  Of course not everybody practices it that way, but that’s true of all of the faiths (evidence: endless).  And the word jihad might be the most misunderstood ever, which is a shame because I am 100% behind the concept, although admitting so in this world means- at the very least- being subject to an even more thorough airport search than the one in the Netherlands (aptly named because she was uncomfortably brushing my nether regions while- is it jocular when there’s awkward touching?- attempting a joke about my fuzzy sweater.  “Did you shoooooot da bear yourself?”  Crikey.)

Jihad is the word for struggle, and it’s meant primarily to be a description of a struggle with the self: to be pure, to do good, to submit to Allah (exact same god as Christian and Jewish god, just an Arabic word.  Honestly if you haven’t had the chance to learn the parallels and connections between all three religions, do it.  It’s fascinating and enlightening, and I’m far too jet-lagged to give it justice now.)  But sadly, the media (Jerk Store called, would like to make a prototype) has portrayed it as the extremists they glorify would like: as some kind of bloodthirsty excuse to wage holy war against infidels.  Media, I say to you: C’MON.  Little research maybe?

If you follow the principles of true jihad, you’re not actually allowed to attack anyone unprovoked, and Muslims who follow the teachings of Muhammad are not allowed to try to convert people because it’s all about peace and tolerance.  What jihad means is that a follower of Islam must defend those who cannot defend themselves, but only with the force necessary to make the injustice stop.  Pursuit of power?  Not allowed.  Revenge?  Not allowed.  Violently stopping a bully with more aggression than is necessary because you want to teach him a lesson?  Noooooooooope.  There are definitely people who ignore this and they are definitely, heartbreakingly, frequently in the news… but that’s not actually what jihad has always meant and it’s not the vast majority of Muslims.

I could go on, but nap time is increasingly demanding priority.  Plus round two of moving is later today, and the well-rested lift up the heavier load.  Want to learn more about Islam and the Middle East, though?  I’m no expert, but I’m here… and Portland has a phenomenal community of really nice, really helpful people who are way more willing and eager to talk than to fight.

Let’s do that.



The Surprising Adventures of Middle Eastern Tinder

When Diego proposed that he be the sly, witty voice of a Middle Eastern Tinder account I set up to see what dudes in this part of the world are digging (spoiler: it’s the atomic drop of enormous jungle cats using only their strapping muscles and BARE HANDS!  Correction: it’s the WWE-wrestling of mildly wild felines who were declawed specifically for the photo op… no-  Final edit: it’s the gentle giving of a noogie to highly sedated tigers.  For a Tinder profile.  The subject’s next picture will be of him aiming a gun- not so different from the Firearm Flannels of Facebook, Maine.  After that will be an extremely expensive car or motorcycle that goes very fast.  And the final one will be skydiving.  Spare me, nouveau riche Romeo.)

For the layman, Tinder is an app you can download if you are, as Amy likes to say, looking for love in all the wrong places.  It’s extremely judgmental in that you can look briefly at a person’s chosen photos, chuckle derisively at the way they spell “your a teacher? i’m bad at grammer” and then, with a dramatic swipe, just finger-flick them smack out of your virtual existence. And though I’m not at all interested in meeting anyone in real life for many reasons (Life is good!  People are good!  Stranger danger from afar seems sinister!) of course, as a student of human nature, I jumped at the chance to do some no-stakes tinding.  This was intended to be just a wee bit o’ fun.

Diego- and we have this in common- likes to play the weird card first.  Thus:

We didn’t expect these people to answer, but I suppose we also didn’t think about the fact that if a person is on this app in a country where there are more male guest workers than nationals and where a blond American just arrived in the country is likely perceived as, well… “liberal”, I suppose a little bit of standards-lowering makes sense.  I quite enjoyed all the laughing and all the suspiciously shaped deltoids, though.

Anyway, I embraced a big ole perspective shift when I had enough down time to hit the wiffy but not quite enough to go outside and talk to people. I realized I could actually start a conversation with men from all over the world (Bahrain, the Emirates, and Qatar are all overwhelmingly multinational states) about how people truly feel about Trump.  Conversational score, yo!  Stuff like


I ended up having getting quite a lot of insight from these convos (and others I forgot to screenshot because I was actually into the chatting) and it turns out there is a definite diversity of views, although the overwhelming majority fall more along the lines of “for fuck’s sake- WHY?”  But people from the east are worried about impending government decisions from Iran, Saudi, India, Pakistan, and the US.  They made it clear that volatility is a decidedly dishonorable quality.

The foreign folk are also understandably worried that the US voting public is increasingly ignorant of the rest of the world’s global interdependence while those countries are for now- and maybe only for now- still depending on markets and goodwill of our once-solid nation. Neither trade, trust, nor truth can be found in Trump, they think.

Aw, Tinder… in this I tend to agree.

I’m ending abruptly because I have to go board a plane now.  But cheers and Thanksgiving, everyone!

The Ministry of Education/A Plea for Social Studies and for Action, Baby!

We’re at the Ministry of Education of Qatar, discussing the implementation of social studies standards across our two countries.  And it’s interesting because when our delegation carefully brings up that our content area- specifically the tenet of civic responsibility- is the bastard muggle child in the wizarding world of language and STEM (every time we enter a ministry I think I’m transported to a Harry Potter movie) we’re met with knowing nods of recognition.  Social studies is a Jon Snow (switching fantastic metaphors) everywhere and we need a little magic to revive.

This is a big, fat prob, and I contend that the division and contemptible rhetoric currently invading our political and social structures can absolutely be connected to citizens’ inability to access, through formal education, the ability to effect change in society.  This is within teachers’ reach.  Literacy and numeracy get us nowhere if we don’t know how to be active citizens in a diverse, democratic society.  STEM gets us nowhere if we can’t be ethical, humane, and open.  Social studies, for you acronym-lovers out there, is a great BFD.

If a Trump presidency can be tied to the frustration and disenfranchisement of a population who a) didn’t have the analytical and/or communication skills to identify and precisely voice their frustrations, leading to b) them not coming up with a pragmatic course of action that could measurably improve their lives, then we have to address the root to transform the increasingly white supremacist tree.

As dire as our situation looks in the United States, I’m reminded by my visit to three very different countries, where both citizens and expats would have to work much more creatively to prompt some political policy, that we still do live- at least for now- in a place where we can make our voices work for us.  Don’t just stew: do.

We can connect with and listen to other perspectives- not divisively but with compromise and action at the forefront.  We can take a page from Dan Rather’s idea book and “flood newsrooms or TV networks with (our) calls if (we) feel they are slipping into the normalization of extremism.” We can contact local, state, and national legislators and pressure them to make decisions for humanity.  Shoot- for the moment, we can still run for these positions ourselves.

In the wise words of another man I was lucky enough to meet today, let’s get that elephant out of the room, yeah?  Accio pen!  It can truly be mightier than the sword.


A Dubious Drink in Doha

Trying to wet your whistle in Doha requires a keen mastery of at least one of the soft skills (I’ll refrain, for the moment, of explaining how much I despise that term) we’ve been trumpeting at all the educational forums thus far.  Hard skills (gross) too, in that in order to quantify the teeming sidewalk testosterone and create an accurate male-to-female ratio, you need enough deftness in numeracy to count to the technical term “hundreds” and compare it with the estrogen-wielding “Betsey and me”.

It is disconcerting enough to be the only pair of women among such a throng of staring men, but we also didn’t know where we were going, and in pants, a long-sleeved button-up, and some clacking, closed-toe shoes, I felt naked on a sidewalk catwalk.  “Shoulders back, chest out,” I note-to-selfed so I could project an air of unapproachable confidence, but then I took it back immediately because I didn’t want to call further attention to my (numeracy term) personal proportions.  At the same time, we had to keep an eye out to avoid the potential pratfall.  Construction is ubiquitous in Doha.  Roads are blocked for site access only, sidewalks are fenced in, and once we even walked a tenuous plank across a dig.  Did we really quite so much want to have a Heineken?

Qatar is a dry country, in desert as well as in drink.  It’s also appearing more conservative than Bahrain and the Emirates- although to be fair, we saw a limited population- where the people we met made a point to emphasize the welcoming and tolerant natures of the countries.  This plays well to the tourist base, and I let down my guard a bit when it came to covering carefully.  Our hotels and dinners, even when hosted by locals- have often included the generous nod to the all-American cocktail or (my favorite) a nip in the minibar.  We’ve really met some of the most gracious of hosts.  But yeah, all of a sudden having a nightcap got hard.

When we finally pushed through to the hotel, we were again the only women in the place.  Qatari men in traditional dress were smoking rather handsomely in groups at the tables, and western-looking businessmen were interspersed.  After delivering our passports for a security photo, we finally plunked our butts on the barstools for a closing potent potable.

The experience was Doha notable.

Side note: I didn’t take any pictures that first night so this an awesome panorama of the Grand Mosque in UAE.  Cheers!IMG_4225.jpg

Camels and Dune Bashes: Abu Dhabi Desert

We are sardine-style in a Land Cruiser in stark, straight desert, listening to some terrible song about American Apparel underwear and being “so down”.  Bad US pop music is a weird, weird way to start an excursion to something fairly exclusive to the desolate dunes of Arabia, but we’re rolling with the soundtrack as well as the golden sandscape.  We fellows are headed to a dairy farm, y’all!  But it’s the camel supplanting the cow, and this is going to be capital letters, Tony the Tiger GREAT!


Whoops- our driver, Rashid, has stopped us to deflate the tires.  I’m chugging the last of this 1000 mL of Pelegrino because

  1. I only had ten minutes for lunch so I did the buffet beeline thinking it would be efficient but not, for example, the $70 that it also turned out to be.  When the bill came, I decided it warranted a to-go water,  A big one.  Also,
  2. the lack of desert porcelain does not seem immediately pressing (addendum: it was), and finally,
  3. the bottle doesn’t have a cap and I don’t want to hold a volatile, swishing glass water bottle between my knees for the inevitable off-roading we’re bound to do.

The scene: fences line the roads so we don’t hit gazelles and we are uncomfortably close to a bunch of signs advertising shooting ranges. A military city- whatever terrifying thing that means- lies nearby and every once in awhile a fancy-tank helicopter invades the skyline.  There are camels on the road!  Camels are not moose but I wouldn’t want to hit one at the culmination of a high-speed chase.  They are big buggers.

Soon we exit the vehicle at the farm and get what are pretty much the best photo ops of my adult life.  Check it:

When we’re done, we do something called dune blasting.  This is a thing that should come advertised like one of those dysfunction drugs, with a list of side effects scrolling tiny but endlessly across the concierge’s brochure.  For starters, it’s very easy to get concussed when your head blows up from the sheer adrenaline of it all.  It’s also conceivable to permanently damage your knuckle nerves because they definitely lose a lot of the blood from all the clutching.   On the other hand, it’s a great way to practice your conversational German as your Land Cruiser is two-wheel teetering over what Rashid describes as a series of 65-foot dunes.  This is because the German next to you will be muttering “scheisse, scheisse” (one of the scatological swear words) as you plummet to the bottom leaving naught but a granular wake and the echoes of cross-cultural screaming. And then do it again.  And again.  And again, ad literal nauseum.  So insane, but so incredible.

When we finally pulled up to our desert dinner destination, it was chill time for hand henna and a little bit of camel riding.  Have you ever seen camels walk?  Here, look:

It’s the most graceful yet ungainly gait I’ve witnessed across the animal kingdom, and what that turned out to mean for the ride is that it was a neat little rolling walk until the dismount, which is when the camel just detaches all its leg joints and kerplops in the sand.  Net effect?  I smooshed my startled face into the camel behind me, then gave a Mary Catherine Gallagher triumphant salute.

After dinner and some outdoor spotlit belly dancing (not from me, from a professional) we smoked some double apple shisha (like a water bong hookah without all the drugs) in the name of intrepid traveling.

So the desert is awesome, and I mean that in the true sense: of the experience inspiring the wide-eyed, humble awe.  Camels, with their perpetual anthropomorphic smiles, are pretty great, too- and all in all this was exactly the brain-waker I needed. In fact, forget the “Tony the Tiger GREAT” of the beginning of this post.

The Abu Dhabi desert safari is decidedly Joe Camel smokin’.


This is how big the Dubai Mall is: 45 minutes after I decided I was leaving, I was whimpering pitifully down three layers of parking garage after passing the aquarium, the ice skating rink, and the waterfall.  I’d managed to leave the building once, but the sidewalk shuttled me right back in through Bloomingdale’s.  My brain was flagging, my tired body had settled into a shuffle in inverted-v, and I just. could. not. find. an exit.

This place is nuts.

I was only in the mall because it’s the only way to get to the top of the Burj Khalifa, which- as the current tallest building in the world with 160 stories- is even nuts-er.  It stands pointedly over all the other skyscrapers like Yao Ming on a Lilliputian basketball team, and basically just says to the environs, “screw you, desert, I got this.”  Look:

I had to go back to the hotel for a nap after, but I’m not even mad about it.  Got to see a lot of Dubai in a mere couple of days, up to and including a dinner with the woman who literally wrote the book on the Spiritual Orgasm.  If you are wondering what a Spiritual Orgasm is, it is this:


and the author, Gloria, has devoted herself to personal happiness and the spreading of joy.    She has a badass home, too, and I know that because she invited all 18 of us over for a home cooked meal and for the circle-sharing of our non-negotiable dreams- how nice is that?  The milk of human kindness is flowing in Dubai, y’all.  I talked about how I wanted a meerkat to stand on my head.

The next day we had to be consummate professionals again here:


where you can get a certificate in “To Whom It May Concern” which is a great example of forward-thinking in our global world.


We met with this handsome and well-spoken gentleman who made me want to sit up a little straighter, and over the course of the next few hours I learned a lot about how inspiring and knowledgeable are the group with whom I’m traveling.


(Whoops- the waiter and I were just talking while he poured me some wine and he ended up filling my entire water glass with it instead of just splashing the bottom of the wine glass.  This could get interesting.)

Anyway, our cohort here is professionally impressive and I’m learning a ton, especially since I also get to speak with top educators in all of these countries.  Yesterday I even got to do a presentation at the Ministry- when the Emirati teachers heard about the demographics of Portland, they asked me to get up and speak about strategies for being a global educator- and I’m including the picture even though it’s not aesthetically pleasing because it appeals to my intellectual vanity and maybe my parents will be all proud.  But you guys- I don’t even want to hear any guff about the fact that I’m wearing a suit, okay?


A highlight of last night was Diann, an expat ex-Texan who happens to have double balconies on the 47th floor of a building overlooking the Palms.  The Emirati generosity was strong in this one, and she invited us over after the meeting to watch the sunset over the Gulf.  I can’t believe I got to do that!  Look:


We tried to hit the Palms Atlantis after sunset to see a belly dancer, but unfortunately we were an hour late and subsequently got kicked out for not ordering any food.  Went home, hit the sack, and boom: up for the Burj this morning.

It’s time to go to Abu Dhabi now- gotta go finish this pint glass of wine…


The Grumpy Blog of Swears

Fact (you had to say that in a Dwight Schrute voice.  I should have told you that first.  Going forward, I’ll prompt you in advance. For now, you’ll just have to start over.  So,) fact: we are are arranged on a school stage horseshoe style and there is no possible way a single member of the audience is here by choice.  (Revert to your normal reading voice now.) They have the dazed look of prisoners at the driest of our Wednesday sit-and-gets, and we’re stuck here another two hours.  I have swear words in my brain.  I’m going to talk to you about swear words.  And you guys, it’s so interesting!

So I came upon this review the other day of a study called (David Attenborough voice) Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study. Now I’ve been fascinated with cuss words ever since Billy Picher used to try to shock my elementary self with the Beastie Boys as we got off the big yellow bus.  Holy illicit naughtiness factor.  I had thus far been the kind of angelic child who thought prayers were written by plebeian heathens who didn’t even have the social consciousness to add a simple “please” and “thank you”, so I added them myself.

Seriously.  I said (in earnest cheerleader voice) “holy Mary, mother of God, please pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. THANKS! ”

So swearing became fascinating to me, but also the ideal form of rebellion in that

  1. I was terrified of drinking because Coach Vachon was frighteningly specific about how much basketball I wouldn’t be playing if I were caught,
  2. Snoop Dogg eventually came out with some incredibly satisfying inflections of (Snoop Dogg drawl) (insert disgusting but necessary bodily function here), and
  3. It doesn’t actually hurt anybody, like ever.

Well, I went through my rap phase (lie: I’m still in it) and eventually grew up-ish, and my adult nerd self was excited to read about the ethnolinguistics of the cross-cultural cuss.  And guess what I learned?  In the 25 languages studied, there were five themes (Alex Trebek reading the categories of Jeopardy voice): religious, scatological, sex organs, sexual activities, and “your mother”.  This list is not in order of usage.  Also I’m a fan of my mother so we will not be exploring that one further.

But as you may have noted and as I’m about to have quoted, “The first major theme is religion.”

And then it gets specific:  “In Christian cultures, there is a distinction between celestial (my note: Jeeeeeeeesus!) and diabolic (my note: what the hell?) swearing, but among Muslims, diabolic themes apparently do not occur.”

Isn’t that interesting?  I don’t want to make any assumptions because the only other culture in which I can swear is French-Canadian, and the funniest phrase there translates to “Christ in a Culvert”.  Honestly I don’t know if a culvert is supposed to be celestial or hellish or where footprints in Quebecois sand are, but religion-specific cursing is a heck (ha!) of an interesting concept.

The whole thing got me thinking further about how language structures might subconsciously shape how we contextualize the world, and therefore shape societies as a whole.  A few years ago, I saw this TEDx talk from a Vietnamese-Mainer who explained that in his native language, there was no subjunctive case, no “what if?”, no way to express the idea of an alternate present or imaginary future.  Perhaps for this reason, people simply accepted situations as they existed and moved on.  What does this mean for a society forced to quickly adapt to a shrinking world?  One in which they weren’t just dealing with each others’ like-mindsets anymore?

Speaking of like-mindsets, the local staff dude in the second row is fully asleep.  Fist bump, bro, I’m with you.  No human should have to listen to anything for this many hours at a time and if I didn’t have a four-letter blog to write I’d be zzzz-ing it, too.

Anyway, precision of language is a really big deal if nations are to work together to solve social, moral, and (sure, economic) problems- which is one of the aims of this fellowship.  Case in point, I also learned when studying for this that words in Arabic can be technically interpreted as having many different definitions, and meaning has to be determined by the context.  For example, as author Reza Aslan notes in No god but God, the Arabic word adribuhunna can mean beat women, or turn away from them, or go along with them, or have consensual sex with them.  So if you have some salty misogynist (insert curse for “sex organ”) interpreting, he can really mess with women… not to mention anyone who unquestioningly goes along with his translation.  But if you have an educated historian who lives by the just and compassionate tenets of true Islam, however, you’ll get a very different and kinder lesson. But it’s really, really (swear word in the category of “sexual activity” coming up, maybe use your Eric Bettencourt voice if you know him) fucking easy to manipulate people’s knowledge and behaviors when they don’t have that important historical context.  Education, yo.

But I think another aim of this fellowship is to try to put all that Humpty-Dumpty communication together again. And now that our speeches are finally, ironically over?  I’ve gotta go get on that.