Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Reunion (Part 2)

Continuation of the previous blog entry:

A few minutes later, we see two young women coming towards us excitedly. They are Azi’s daughters. The last time I saw them one was eight and the other was one and a half years old. We hug each other several times and cry. I am in disbelief trying to register who they are. They are both familiar and unfamiliar. I am at a loss for words not sure, what is the right thing to say. Azi is waiting in front of the apartment building. I see Azi in the dark. She is crying. I walk towards her. I’m all chocked up barely able to speak with a weak voice I say, “It’s Soheila.” knowing that it is difficult to see in the dark. She says, “Oh, Soheila” and we embrace each other tightly both sobbing. I am unable to talk. In the midst of her cries Azi, occasionally, says, “Thank God, thank God…” We hold each other and sob for ten minutes while her daughters watch. I cry with so much pain. It is the pain of all that I have suffered alone in life. Her loving embrace has a healing effect on me. For ten minutes, I only feel love. There is no other feeling. There is no fear. I have no other concerns. That night and every night after that we all stay up late and talk. That night and the next day, we find ourselves crying and emotional at the immensity of what we are experiencing. Sometime the next day, Azi, while talking, refers to me by my childhood nickname. I feel a knot in my throat and start to cry again. I have not heard her call me by my nickname since I was a child. I spend the entire next day with Azi talking and bonding with her. I want to get to know her. I want to know what she is like. She is soft-spoken, very calm and mild mannered. She is a highly principled lady with an unshakable faith. She is a person who lives her life according to what she believes is pleasing to God. Every action and decision is based on that principle. Unlike me, she seems very much at peace with her life. I am often dissatisfied with myself and my life, a life which most of the time has made no sense to me. It is difficult for me to see God’s hand in my life. But, what do I know, maybe, God has had a hand in my crazy and totally out of order life too. At times, I notice that Azi looks at me looking baffled as though she is trying to figure me out. We are both trying to figure each other out. She has never known me as an adult and one thing is very obvious, we are very different. At times, I wonder if she and her daughters find my, sometimes, irreverent sense of humor and uninhibited words, laughter, mannerism and silliness too forward or odd.

Over the next several days, I get to know Azi and her daughters more. What is obvious are the cultural differences. I have lived most of my life in the US and my approach to things, perceptions and viewpoints are much less conservative than theirs. I am not as proper as they are. They find me more assertive than they are, and they attribute that to my living in the States for so long where women are not expected to take a backseat in society. I do appreciate the differences.  We spend seven days together, talking, bonding and sightseeing.

Dubai is a very modern city. It is a city that has been, basically, built in the last twenty years. Everything is new. It is the city of skyscrapers. The highways are nice and wide. There are a lot of flashy buildings and structures that remind me of Las Vegas. Dubai looks like a small, new and clean version of the US. There are numerous malls. The tallest building in the world is in Dubai. There are man-made islands of sand in the Persian Gulf that house luxurious buildings. The place is full of American and European chains. If you don’t see the Arab men and women around, you would think you are either in Europe or the US. In the more touristy areas you see non-Arab women in revealing clothes. Most of the people in Dubai are foreigners. They are either visitors or workers. Practically, all the workers at shops, hotels and restaurants are foreigners from other Asian countries.

One of my dreams was realized when I was in the waters of the Persian Gulf. The first time on the beach, I closed my eyes and tried to remember how warm and gentle the water felt on my body. I kept telling myself, “I’m in the waters of the Persian Gulf, remember this, remember this…” The water was clear, warm and gentle with very small waves.

The most fascinating thing to me was the co-existence of the conservative Islamic culture and the western culture In Dubai. In malls, on the streets, on the beach, in the restaurants you see Arab women with their long black coverings not even showing their faces walking, shopping and eating. Next to them, you can see foreign women wearing short skirts and low cut tops. I wonder what the Arabs think about the non-Muslim women showing flesh. Do they find it offensive? Do they find it shameless and vulgar? In the Islamic cultures modesty for women is a necessity, and it is enforced by law in certain countries.

One day, while shopping, I see an Arab woman who is covered from head to toe in black with only her eyes showing. She is window-shopping. I start to talk to her. She can speak a little bit of English. I ask her, “Isn’t she hot wearing all that black?” She says, “No” and she puts her hand on mine and says, “See”. Yes, her hand is cold, but we are in an air-conditioned mall. I ask her what she thinks about wearing all that covering. She says, “She doesn’t mind it, and it is the law of Mohammed that Muslim women should cover up.”  She says she is from Saudi Arabia and all women there have to be covered up totally with only their eyes showing. I knew that, imagining all women being covered from head to toe in black walking on the street with only the eyes showing is a depressing image. She says that she feels that non-Muslims are afraid of her when they see her in all black. She asks me if that is the case. I tell her, "I think it is just something very different and unusual for them to see." Personally, I find it jarring to see women like that, but I don’t say that to her. I have always seen the covering of women as a symbol of oppression of women by men. In the heat of Arabia, man walk around in white cotton gowns and women are covered in layers of black. It seems so unfair, but it is obvious that she is at peace with it. To her, it means that she obeys her religion, and it is a symbol of her piety. I ask her if her husband has more than one wife since Muslim men can have up to four wives. She is slightly embarrassed by the question and says, “No, my husband only has me, and he is a very good husband.” She says that a man having more than one wife is an uncommon occurrence. She is very sweet and friendly. She invites me to go and visit Saudi Arabia. She says that people are nice and friendly there. She is 27, mother of four children and has been married since she was seventeen. She might have a high school diploma. I’m impressed by her English and the extent that she is able to communicate with me.

I find it fascinating that Arab men and women with their traditional clothes sit at Starbucks, drink coffee and have cheesecake while Lady Gaga’s music with its very irreverent lyrics is being played.  I, also, find it fascinating to see women covered in black at expensive stores such as Versace and Dior buying $500.00 purses. There is western influence everywhere. I thought it might be frustrating for their youth to be near people who are so uninhibited in the way they live, dress and behave while they are so restricted.

Another thing that is interesting to me is that all the young Arabs from Dubai speak fluent English. A young man tells me that their curriculum in school is both in English and Arabic.  I’m also surprised at the number of people with Iranian ancestry living in Dubai. I am shocked the first time I see a man in Arabian clothes and headdress speaking, our language, Persian in a mall. Iranians are one of the largest minorities in Dubai and owners of many businesses. I come across several men of Iranian ancestry when getting information about different things. They all wear Arabian clothes. When they would find out that I’m from Iran, they would all insist on speaking Persian with me wanting to practice their Persian. Most of them are born in Dubai. Their identity is mostly Arab.

The only activity that I participate in that is different is going on a desert safari. I go with a small group of tourists and a guide. We drive over the sand dunes in the desert for a while. I pay a bunch of money to ride a camel for three minutes. I have my hands painted with Henna in the tradition of Middle Eastern and Indian women.

During the desert safari, after we drive about 30 minutes in the desert, we stop to take pictures. Because my sandals get filled with sand with every step, I take them off and start to walk barefoot in the sand. I am surprised at how soft and smooth the sand is. The sand is like powder, so much easier to walk on without shoes. It is the softest surface I have ever walked on. I absolutely love it. For the rest of the night, I walk barefoot in the sand. Arabs conquered Iran over a thousand years ago and brought Islam to Iran. Iranians had always been the more civilized nation with grand buildings, libraries, universities and art. Throughout my childhood, I remember people referring to the conquering of Iran by the Arabs as conquering of Iran by the “barefoot Arabs”, which was a derogatory term. Not wearing shoes was a sign of incivility. Walking on the sand, I thought if this were the surface you walked on, why would you ever want to wear shoes. This sand is a gentle and loving surface to walk on, so much softer and nicer than walking on grass or any beach that I have ever walked on. I enjoy my feet going deep into the powder-like and warm sand while walking. It feels tender like a loving touch.

I look around me in the desert. All I can see is brown sand and sand dunes. There are no plants or vegetation. Sand is all you can see until it meets the sky in the horizon. After looking at this view for a few minutes where every direction I look I only see brown sand, I feel terrified. I need to see something, anything, instead of what seems like vast nothingness. I turn around and look at the SUV and the people in my tour, and I feel better. It is like being in a room where all the walls, doors and door nubs are white and there are no windows. I think I would go insane if I had to live in the desert. How do the Bedouins do it? Yet, I hear a number of times from the locals how they enjoy the desert. It is their nature. It is where they go to escape the city. It is like going to the mountains for those of us who live in Colorado.

During the trip I have a couple of interesting conversations with the local men who approach me. The most interesting is with a young Arab shopkeeper who owns a store that is full of beautiful hand-made pottery, art and fabric. I am drawn to this shop. Everything in it is so beautiful. I go in and start to look. The young shopkeeper starts to follow me offering to show me some things. I’m trying not to look interested. I can tell everything in this shop is out of my price range. He is very friendly and insists on talking while I’m trying not to make eye contact with him. I don’t want him to waste his time thinking that he has a buyer. I, politely, try to tell him that I’m just looking but he, clearly, wants to talk. He asks me if I’m from Iran. I say, “Yes”. Our conversation is in a mixture of English and some Arabic words. My Persian pronunciation of Arabic words leads him to guess that I’m Iranian. While trying to get me interested in looking at different things, he pays me a number of compliments. I look at him. He is a man in his twenties wearing the traditional clothes of Arab men. He asks me if I’m married. I tell him that I’m divorced; knowing that in the Middle Eastern culture a divorced woman is not as desirable as an unmarried woman. He says, "Would you like to be married?" I am shocked. I look at him and say, “No, I never want to marry again.” He says, “But you are beautiful, you should marry.” I ask him how old he is. He says that he is twenty-five. I tell him that I’m way older than he is, and he should be talking to the young and beautiful women who live in Dubai. He says, “I don’t care about age. I was immediately attracted to you when you walked into my shop.” He keeps asking me if I would be interested in marriage. For the fourth time I say, “No”. In order to get him to quit asking me, I tell him that I’m not a Muslim. He says, “No problem”. I don’t know what else to say. I’m divorced, I’m older, I’m not a Muslim, all the things that would make me undesirable in an Islamic culture, and he is still interested. I want to leave, but he insists on talking. He keeps telling me that he is interested in marriage. I keep telling myself that there has to be a catch here. I wonder what else I can tell him to get him to lose interest. He is so OK with everything I say.  Maybe I should tell him how old I am, but I don’t disclose that information just to anybody. He, clearly, thinks that I’m a lot younger than I am. Finally, I leave his shop as he puts one of his cards in my hand and says, “I’m serious. You would love living in Dubai. Think about it, and I hope you’ll change your mind.” I say Goodbye. I leave the shop totally confused. I ask myself, “Was he for real?”

Finally, the day of our departure arrives. I am the first to have to leave. It has been a great visit. It was needed for all of us. When I left Iran, I never thought that the situation in Iran would remain so hostile and dangerous for such a long time. I thought that I would be able to see my family often. But that wasn’t the case. For years, I lived as though there was unfinished business in my life when it came to my family who lives in Iran. I needed some kind of closure. This trip gave me that. I feel fine about saying goodbye. I know what I need to know about my family. What needed to be said has been said. What needed to be felt has been felt. What needed to be experienced for me to fill the hole in my heart has been experienced. I know that I belong to my life, and they belong to theirs. It is time to go. We say goodbye and plan on another reunion in a few years if not in Iran in some other country. I kiss and hug everyone numerous times and tell them that I love them. As I say goodbye, I look at everyone’s face deeply, trying to remember smiles and expressions. I look at Azi’s face. For an instant, I remember Azi’s face when I said goodbye to her over 20 years ago. It is the same face, smile and expression just older. Azi’s face is the face I’m looking at when the elevator door closes. I take a deep breath. I am satisfied. I have found that piece of my heart that had been missing for so many years. It is now in its proper place. Things are as they should be.

Two things I will miss about Dubai, walking in the loving desert sand and being in the waters of the Persian Gulf, the body of water name
d after my heritage.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Reunion (Part 1)

April 2nd 2010

I’m on a plane on my way to Dubai. I have been traveling for the last 18 hours. We will land in Dubai in about two hours. For some reason, as the time of my departure grew near, I felt more and more numb. I haven’t been emotional at all. I have been wondering about meeting Azi, my sister whom I have not seen in over twenty years, and her two daughters.  After all these years, we are meeting in Dubai for a family reunion.  Iran is the country of my birth.  I left Iran when I was 17 years old and have not been back since due to the political situation in Iran.  I keep asking myself, “What if I don’t feel anything when I see Azi and her daughters?” So many years have passed. We have been separated by time and a culture that is so different from my own. I have changed so much. What if we have nothing in common?

The young American man sitting next to me is so polite and courteous.  He is going to Dubai to see his parents who work there. About half of the people on the plane seem to be from India, Middle East and other Asian countries. The announcements made by the flight attendants are in English and Arabic.

During the flight, I, periodically, look at the map of our journey on the TV monitor in front of me. We are flying by Iran. How I wish I were going to Iran instead of Dubai. That was my original plan, but the political situation in Iran has gotten worse and those of my family who don’t live in Iran decided not to take any chances by traveling to Iran for this family reunion. For a moment, I think about all the pain and oppression inflicted on the people of Iran by the Islamic Republic of Iran. So many young people are in prisons enduring unimaginable cruelty. So many people are suffering at the hands of the unjust Muslim clergy. This government has persecuted the Baha’is, people of my religion, since it came to power over 30 years ago. My heart goes out to all of them, and I say a prayer for Iran. In my mind, I visualize the map of Iran in flames. That is how I see Iran. The calamity endured by the Iranians during the reign of the Islamic regime has been great. People’s freedoms and human rights have been taken away so violently and in so many different ways.

The plane is descending. We are flying over the Persian Gulf. I remember when I lived in Iran, every spring during the Persian New Year holiday of Norooz, we would travel to the southern part of Iran by the Persian Gulf where my sister Azi and her family used to live. Iran or Persia has the longest border of any country with the Persian Gulf and hence the name. About fifteen minutes before landing, I see an island with four huge fires burning. It is the untamed gas that is burning continuously. The flames starch out to the sky for hundreds or thousands of feet. As a child, I saw similar fires in the oil rich areas of Iran. As we descend, I can see the city of Dubai. It is obvious that it is a new city. There are many roads and highways. The roads are straight and they, sometimes, form perfect squares when they cross. There is symmetry in a lot of what I see. There are very large highways with six or seven lanes going one way.

We land. The Dubai airport is new and beautiful. There are palm trees in the main area. I see Arab men dressed in long white gowns that are very clean and ironed. They have their traditional headdress on and all are wearing sandals. I see women wearing long black covering. Some show their faces, which are perfectly made up. Some only show their eyes. Some show nothing and are covered entirely with a black cloth over their faces. Some are wearing pants and long sleeve shirts with shawls over their hair. I feel almost naked with my hair and some skin showing. I didn’t expect to see women that were covered entirely in black not showing an inch of skin in Dubai. I thought because there is such an influx of foreigners in Dubai Arab women would be less conservative. The airport workers are all foreigners, people from the Philippines, India, Pakistan and other Asian nations. All are fluent in English. The foreign women are dressed like westerners. The only Arabs that I see working are the men at the customs, again, all dressed in white long gowns with their headdresses. I pick up my luggage, exchange dollars to Dirham and head out to catch a cab. I ask myself, “Is it safe for me to take a cab alone?” It is 8:00 PM. The temperature is in the 80’s and it is very humid. I catch a cab. The friendly disposition of the driver makes me feel at ease. He is from India. During the thirty minutes that takes me to get to my hotel, I look at my surroundings. Buildings are all new and western in style. The only thing that reminds one that she or he is in an Arab country is that all the signs for stores, banks and businesses are both in English and Arabic. Because there are so many Arabic words incorporated into the Persian language and vise versa, I can read a lot of the signs. As I look at my surroundings, I see Starbucks, Chilies, KFC, Ace Hardware, Baskin Robins, and other American chains.

April 3rd
This is the day that my family who has come from four different counties for this reunion will meet. With the exception of Azi and her daughters, I have seen everybody recently. I am nervous about meeting Azi and her family. At 6:00 o’clock, my sister Zhaleh, and one of my relatives Simon with her 2 kids and her husband Polo arrive.   Simon and her husband have rented a minivan for the duration of our stay. On the way to meet Azi, Simon’s husband, Polo and their two kids are going to be dropped off at SKI Dubai, a large building where fake snow and ski slopes are made, and people who have never seen snow can actually ski in the midst of the Arabian Desert.  The minivan is equipped with a GPS, which Simon refers to as “Lola”.

Finally, at 7:00 PM we start on the path to our reunion. Every few minutes, I remember that the long awaited moment of reunion is finally arriving. I am filled with excitement and fear, fear of not being able to connect to the people that I have not seen in so many years, fear of being total strangers.

We get in the minivan. Polo is driving and Lola, the GPS, is guiding us. The car is low on gas, and we need to find a gas station before going too far. There are so many new constructions and roads that Lola, the GPS, gets us lost. Lola doesn't have the latest information and is totally confused. After about 20 minutes of driving we end up in front of our hotel back where we started. We all get a good laugh out of this. At that point, Polo goes to a cab driver and asks him about the nearest gas station, which apparently is not easy to find. Polo gives him some money and asks him to lead us to a gas station. We get in the car trying to follow the cab driver that zooms through the traffic very quickly. Polo follows him making quick moves trying not to lose him. At one point, we’re not sure if we’re following the right cab. Polo is driving fast and Simon is trying to keep track of the cab saying things like “He turned here. He went to the left. He went to the right….” While behind a red light, Polo gets out of the car and goes to the cab driver and says, “Don’t make me drive all over the city. I’m almost out of gas.” Twenty minutes later, we are at a gas station.  After Polo puts gas in the car, he and the kids take the same cab that we were following to go to Ski Dubai.  Meanwhile, Zhaleh, Simon and I will go to meet Azi. Polo leaves. Simon gets behind the steering wheel and says, “I can’t put the car in gear.” I tell her, “You have to turn on the engine first!”   We both look at the starter and there is no key. Frantically, Simon looks in her purse and all over the car to find the key, but there is no key to be found. We are parked in front of a gas pump at a gas station. The three of us burst into laughter. Once we stop laughing, we start panicking. We talk to the gas station attendant. We tell him what has happened. He says, “But you have to move your car.” We keep repeating that there is no key. He tells Simon to call her husband. She says, “We don’t have cell phone coverage here. I can’t contact him.” Simon and I take a cab, go to Ski Dubai while Zhaleh stays in the car. We get to Ski Dubai and try to find Polo and the kids. As we are looking, Simon realizes that she has a message on her cell phone. It seems that she has coverage after all. The message is from Polo saying that he has the car keys, and he is going back to the gas station. We go back to the gas station and get in the car and drive toward our destination. So, finally, at 9:30 we get to our meeting place. We make a final call telling Azi that we are parked at the designated place by the apartment building where they are staying.
To be continued...