Sunday, July 8, 2012

Mohammed Ali Mubarak al Hammadi’s Emirati-American Family

Mohammed Cindy anniv gift FB
Mohammed and Cindy on their
30th wedding anniversary.
Mark often comes home with anecdotes about the people he works with at the military base. They’re a mixture of Arab culture and Western influence; many studied in the U.S. One day he came home and told me about Mohammed Ali.

“His wife is American; they’ve been married for 30 years. She’s from North Carolina. You should meet her. Mohammed invited us to visit them.” This invitation to visit, coming from an Arab, is no idle chatter. If you are invited you must go, and be prepared to be treated like royalty. Mark and I wanted to do another road trip, so in just a couple of weeks we had made our plans.

The Mohammed Ali Mubarak al Hammadi family lives in Khorfakkan, a small town in the UAE’s Eastern Region on the Gulf of Oman. We booked a hotel room in Fujairah, about 30 minutes south of Khorfakkan.

Before the weekend arrived, I emailed and called Mohammed’s wife Cindy, to introduce myself and check on their schedule for the weekend. Cindy asked me if I have any kids. Two, grown up and living in California, and a granddaughter; and you? Three; two girls in their 20’s and a boy, 17. All still live at home.

Abu Dhabi - Khorfakkan
The small section of UAE coastline in the Eastern Region is of great economic and strategic importance. 

The Eastern Region is quite a contrast to both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Cindy told me. Life is slower paced and more relaxed. Her voice was quiet and reserved, but I could still hear the familiar All-American southern twang. “It’s nice here,” she said.

Fujairah. The port is on the distant horizon. In the foreground, a Zayed Grand Mosque like the one in Abu Dhabi is being built.
Fujairah 3Dirhams 001
Mountains are being moved.

Fujairah is a port city, so by definition it’s industrial. Khorfakkan is a port as well, smaller but still important. This area is a jigsaw puzzle of lands controlled by the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman. As the only cities on the eastern seaboard belonging to the UAE, and accessible by ship without passing through the Strait of Hormuz, the ports of Fujairah and Khorfakkan are of critical importance. The roads to the Arabian Gulf and the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been improved, and an oil pipeline is being built.

At Al Bidyah Mosque
 That weekend, we spent the better part of two days with Mohammed and Cindy. The first day, we visited Al Bidyah, the oldest mosque in the Emirates, and drove north to Dibba, a town divided into three sections and controlled by Oman and two Emirates, Fujairah and Sharjah.

Our Gulf Cuisine meal included
macaroni and cheese, a favorite of Aisha.
We had dinner with the family at a Lebanese restaurant on the Corniche overlooking the Gulf of Oman, with locals cruising the strip below us in an Arab version of American Graffiti. The next day we went to Mohammed and Cindy’s home for an Arab meal before heading back over the mountains to Abu Dhabi.

Fujairah BBQ 025
Aminah brought poppers
instead of fireworks, which
are illegal in the UAE.

We were charmed by the family. Aminah is quiet until you get her talking, and then she goes a mile a minute, telling stories about her students in English or bantering with her parents and siblings in Arabic. Although Aminah doesn’t have a teaching certificate, she is often called upon to cover for the teachers. So she has decided that being classified as a teaching assistant is not satisfactory, and she is thinking about what to do next. Personally, I hope that she continues in education because she obviously loves the kids.

Mohd & Cindy 30th Anniv 026
Aisha is all smiles at the 30th party.
Aisha, the middle child, is the firecracker. Often the center of attention and the subject of teasing and funny stories, she will protest, “No! Don’t tell that story! For the love of God, stop! I can’t take it!” Aisah is a student in the Applied Communications department at the Higher Colleges of Technology Women’s College in Fujairah, where Cindy also works and she is a budding filmmaker. In fact, hers was one of just a few student films selected for the 2011 Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which was held last October, just before I arrived in the UAE.

The subject of Aisha’s film is the “gambooԐa,” a large hair clip that Emirati girls wear to make it look like they have a huge pile of hair under their shaylas. Titled Super GambooԐa, it’s the story of a young girl who thinks the perfect gambooԐa will give her super powers. Aisha is working on her submission to the 2012 Abu Dhabi Film Festival. This year, it’s a documentary about the children of Emirati and American couples; a subject she is quite intimate with. I hope her film makes it in; she’s said she will get me tickets.


Faisal is the boy, and so of course he doesn’t talk with me as much as the girls do. I do however know that he is interested in mechanical engineering, and is entering a robotics competition. I understand a little bit about this, because I substitute taught in an American Community School middle school robotics class once this year, as well as an engineering class. I know that they use a special kind of Legos to build their robotic devices, attaching special motors to make them operate.


Neela serves lunch
The housemaid Neela cooks the meals
to Cindy's specifications.

All three kids love American fast food. Hamburgers, Subway sandwiches, and Baskin Robbins are frequent requests. Like many Emiratis, they stay up into the wee hours of the morning, order their “dinner” of burgers to be delivered in the middle of the night, and then sleep late into the day. But hey, it’s summer.

Larry, Moe, and Curly?
"Too much food" at the party.

I’ve been back three more times: once with Mark, Tom, and Lucy, for a Rotana beach resort weekend in Dibba and lunch with Mohammed, Cindy and family; once with Tom, Dana and Mark, to attend Mohammed and Cindy’s 30th wedding anniversary party, and one more time by myself.

Mohd & Cindy 30th Anniv 040
Their affection for one another is obvious.

For three days and two nights during the week of July 4th, I stayed with Cindy, Aminah, Aisha, and Faisal while Mohammed was working and living on base, as he has throughout their married life. He comes home every weekend.

I went to visit this most recent time for a very special purpose. The first weekend that Cindy and I met, she told me some stories about how she came to live in the UAE. “People tell me I should write a book with all these stories I have,” she said, her southern accent seeping through, “but I’m not really a writer and besides, I don’t really have the time.”

“Well …” I said. An idea was hatched.

A few days before my trip, Cindy told me that we were invited to a July 4th barbecue at an American co-worker’s house. “I’ve never been to a Fourth of July barbecue in the UAE before,” she said. “So just to let you know … and we’re supposed to wear something red, white, and blue.” I didn’t have much, but I packed a blue skirt, white top and red sandals.

Fujairah BBQ 014
American Independence Day spirit.

I needn’t have bothered. Cindy and her daughters had not one but two identical t-shirts with the American flag in the shape of a heart on them; I wore one and Aisha wore the other, under her abaya. Cindy had brought them back from one of her trips back to the U.S.

She went back less frequently after September 11, 2001. After 911, it was difficult to enter the U.S. as an American mother with children who held Emirati passports. So the kids and their American grandparents lost out during those years that they were growing up. Now that they’re adults, their Emirati passports aren’t questioned. As an American, you can hold passports from two different countries, but it’s against Emirati law. The benefits of being Emirati are too great for them to give up their status as nationals.

The t-shirt looked great with my long white skirt, which I had brought thinking that I would feel comfortable wearing it if I went out with the other women in their long abayas. The party was great fun, with a fully loaded potluck table, barbecued burgers and chicken, and the house decorated to the hilt just like in the USA.

Fujairah BBQ 018
I didn't have any Dolly but
Cindy has the whole collection.
You could tell the hostess was a teacher, and a young mother; she had games and prizes, even a piñata. At one point she announced that there was a prize for the person wearing the best Red, White & Blue. I tried to point her in the direction of Cindy, Aminah, and Aisha, who were decked out in Old Glory colors, but in the end, I was given the prize, a “Dolly Parton Favourites” CD. I guess that’s British for “Dolly Parton’s Greatest Hits.”

Now, we have begun our collaboration on the book. Cindy and I spent three days talking and recording our conversation. I learned how she met and fell in love with Mohammed in the U.S. and came to live in Khorfakkan as a young, inexperienced small-town southern Baptist girl. She made a life for herself, learned to speak Arabic like a native, but remained an American. She raised a family, taught herself skills and became a fixture in the community, a person of importance and value, a resource. She has taught English, parenting skills, crafts, cooking, computer skills, and more. When she first arrived, she was known because of who she was: the American wife. Now she is known for what she does: things that no one else can do. Things that everyone else needs help with.

I’ve always wanted to write a book, and now I am busy transcribing Cindy’s words, researching, and writing. Thanks to Cindy and Mohammed, I have a book project! It’s the story of this American woman and Arab man who fell in love and remain a happily married couple 30 years later, told in the context of the United Arab Emirates and the rapid changes it has undergone. We hope that their story will foster greater understanding of the Emirates, and Arab culture, among other people.

Mohd Cindy wedding cake
Cindy photo collection 069


Bryce Kirchoff said...

Anne: I am so inspired by you and your family living abroad! The fact that you capture all that you're learning/exploring is remarkable. I look forward to reading more posts :)

Anne Schreiber Thomas said...

Bryce, Thanks so much for your encouraging words. I'm enjoying being part of the Next Avenue group.

iman said...

Hi there, that is an absolutely lovely story! I stay in Khorfakkan, mom to two lil boys and I hardly have friends here, would love to have some company and make friends with such lovely people! Do let me know!