|Mohammed and Cindy on their |
30th wedding anniversary.
“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.
|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.|
|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|
|Our Gulf Cuisine meal included |
macaroni and cheese, a favorite of Aisha.
|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.
|Aisha is all smiles at the 30th party.|
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.
|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.
|"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.
|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.
|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.
|I didn't have any Dolly but |
Cindy has the whole collection.
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.