Monday 7 pm: Arrive Dubai in a dust storm, drive an hour and a half to Abu Dhabi. It’s hot. And that is British understatement. Realize I’m halfway round the world from mild Seattle.
Monday 10 pm: Mint tea with Ghadeer, the manager of the Sheikha Salama Foundation, who is gorgeous, brilliant, and totally cool. (It won’t be until Thursday evening that her father tells me she’s finishing up her doctorate in political science at the Sorbonne; she doesn’t mention it.)
Tuesday 10 am: Rehearsal for first of two evening forums at the Saadiyat Cultural Center, near where the Louvre and the Guggenheim will be. On the program: Karen Armstrong, Imam Khalid Latif (chaplain of NYU and the NYPD), and… me. Having a bit of trouble believing I’m here.
Tuesday 11 am: Sheikha Salama and her daughter Sheikha Maryam float over the ground in gossamer-light black abayas. Had no idea an abaya could be so elegantly beautiful. More sari than burqa-like. Wonder if I’ll float too if I wear an abaya…
Tuesday 10.30 pm: Since it’s Ramadan, the forums are at night. Tonight, all women. Here and there, diamond studs flash in startlingly white teeth, and delicate feather-light ruffled skirts peek from under the abayas. I’ve never spoken to such a superbly graceful and gracious audience.
Tuesday 11.30 pm: In principle since I’m operating on an 11-hour time difference, I should be fine with night instead of day. Turns out there’s a difference between principle and reality; I feel totally surreal.
Tuesday midnight: A woman who owns 34 prize camels says “You must come back for the camel races.” I still have the scar on my hand from the one time I tried to gallop on a camel, in the Sinai: it tripped and threw me, and I didn’t let go of the lead rope in time. Her camels, she assures me, do not trip.
Wednesday 2.30 am: Raid hotel minibar for a shot of scotch. Feel amazingly sinful and decadent. Put sinful decadent feeling to rest by telling myself it’s a cure for jet lag.
Wednesday 1 pm: Peacocks nesting on the beach with their fledglings. Dust storm is clearing. Incredible humidity closing in instead. Am assured it’s not always like this. Just in August…
Wednesday 10 pm: Chatting in a huddle with dynamite student volunteers as we wait for the crowd to arrive at the cultural center. Love their spirit.
Wednesday 11 pm: The forum convenes again, this time open to the public. Photo op with government ministers. The audience open-minded and open-hearted — a whole series of great conversations afterwards. A mathematician argues with great charm for clarity; I argue with what I hope is equal charm for non-clarity.
Thursday 1 am: Meet up with TEDx Al Ain guys — wonderful energy! We head for a Ramadan tent on the beach for shisha (waterpipe) and saj (flaky herbed pastry), and close the place down.
Thursday 1 pm: My abaya question answered at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It somehow fails to make me look like I’m floating over the ground. I think it only does that for princesses. But the shayla (the head shawl — so light it scrunches up into the palm of your hand) creates welcome shade. (That’s Cosimo of Speakers Associates on my right, Mohamed our docent on my left).
Thursday 2 pm: walking barefoot in 45 C. sun over the huge marble courtyard of the mosque. The floor is cool underfoot. I have no idea how. Giant flowers and vines are inlaid on the marble. I want to lie down on them but think it might be wise not to. I trace them with bare feet.
Thursday 3 pm: Sitting on the floor in front of the qibla staring up at the ceiling and talking space, infinity, mathematics with Mohamed. Very heady.
Thursday 9 pm: In the Marina mall to buy a shayla. I pick one with a silver braided edge, then get ambitious and try on a few abayas before giving up: there’s a secret to being elegant in one, and I don’t know it.
Thursday 10 pm: It seems the hyper-air-conditioned mall is where half of Abu Dhabi heads when it’s this hot. Bump into Ghadeer and her dad, and as we settle in for Turkish coffee, Mohamed the mosque docent passes by and stops to chat. For a moment it feels as though I live here.
Friday 5 am: Back to Dubai for the nonstop Emirates flight north over Iran, the Caspian Sea, and Russia, on over the North Pole, then down over Canada to the mildness of home, where I remember someone saying “Lesley, when you get back to Seattle, you’ll think back and wonder if you were really here in Abu Dhabi…”
Well I felt as if I was there… just for a moment. Bless.
I can till the experience(s) suit and fit you and I bet your hosts are thankful you came. What a whirlwind.
Lesley, it was too short. I hunger for more. what did you speak on? No wonder it all felt surrealistic. It was.
I spoke very much as the accidental theologist — an agnostic Jew on faith and doubt, on certainty and uncertainty, on the letter vs. the spirit: the inhumanity of militant fundamentalism vs. the deep humanity of awe, wonder, gratitude, and humility, all of which the Quran constantly urges. The fact that people were willing to listen even if they didn’t agree made the privilege entirely mine.
Except, except…Islam claims that the Quran is the final word of God. It is a book, given to mankind by God. Literally.
Islam is a literal faith and that is why it breeds fundamentalism, not humility…least of all, humility.
You clearly don’t know many Muslims, if any. Or should I say you literally don’t know many Muslims?
In fact, I do. Very nice people. But probably not good Muslims per the Quran.
Point is that you can afford to pick the pieces of the Quran that you like but Muslims can’t, or shouldn’t. Thankfully many do, contrary to Islam.
You mean the same way the vast majority of Christians and Jews ignore large swaths of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, let alone Judges, Kings, and whole chunks of the New Testament? Sounds to me like you’re applying standards to Islam that you don’t apply to Christianity and Judaism, or any other religion. Maybe you’re secretly a Muslim fundamentalist…
Beautiful picture in the mosque! You look quite elegant in a abaya.
Thank you, but really it was either put on the abaya at the entrance to the mosque or turn back. I’m not much good at turning back, so I simply followed the custom of the place, as you would in a church or a synagogue.
I love the comment on being fundamental against fundamentalists. Sort of like judging only the judgemental. I think you’re saying that we need to change ourselves and be spiritual as we understand it, without forcing that down someone else’s throat. Thank you.
It was wonderful to see you in Abu Dhabi, Lesley.
Wish you all the best and hope for many more exciting adventures ahead for you.
Hey Sajjad, you know exactly what to wish for me! Thank you. Here’s to sharing great conversation with you again. And shisha! — L