Monday, September 29, 2014

My New Neighborhood

Elias playing soccer with his neighborhood friends

Greetings from Doha, Qatar       

Elias and Peter playing with clay with our new neighbors.
       Two nights ago my Palestinian next door neighbor, Abier (who actually lived in Brooklyn, NY for about ten years), prepared us dinner "just because." I was a little shocked when I opened the door and found her husband presenting us with an enormous pan of Arabian spiced chicken, rice and vegetables. I had asked her to teach me how to cook with Middle East spices, and she told me she was a "master", but I did not expect dinner at my doorstep a week later. I am not accustomed to such kindly gestures, and for some reason on this same night, three weeks after arriving here, I happened to churn up my first feelings of loss and homesickness for family and friends. Her kindness reminded me I am indeed part of a new village that seemingly encompasses most of the world's continents,  and that my sky is opening up to let even more sun come in--both literally and figuratively. Ha! (The temperatures are still in the 100's every day, but they are coming down every week).

Many worlds are colliding now in my heart, after living in the same place for 19 years.  There is an occasional pang for old familiarities and conveniences (like getting in the car to drive someplace I need to go), but a new and undeniable widening in my heart is happening too. I can feel it every day as I talk to people, and hear their stories. It is so symbiotic to live here--everybody relies on one another--to drive them places, borrow things from, etc.  (I still don't have a driver's license, and it takes awhile for the resident permit, tests). Joseph said to me tonight, "The world is beginning to seem a lot smaller, don't you think?" Often times there are long, lingering conversations with neighbors in the pool, which is about as big as four or five Olympic size pools. No one is in too much of a hurry.  There is time to meet, greet, visit, and to enjoy a story or joke.  
I told Peter it reminds me of the beginning of my freshman year of college. Everyone was new; it was a whole new chapter for everyone. The two experiences are remarkably similar. People just randomly stop by to chat, and you feel welcome whatever house you go to, whether it be someone from Syria, Africa, Germany, UK, or the US. Everyone is reaching out, trying to embrace this new change in their lives--even the small children joke and laugh with me here.

Children of all nationalities play soccer every night in a patch of grass by the pool--not all of them even knowing the same language--just relishing the few moments to kick a battered ball around with new friends. It is a guaranteed sight that you will see the "pick up" soccer game start at around 4:00, and go to about 5:30. Everybody then vanishes for dinner, and there is a peaceful quiet around the shimmering, light filled pool. A Nepalese lifeguard is standing on the side of the pool, and smiles at everyone as they go by, even playing catch with the children. He is not the typical lifeguard, with his apparel of pants and shirt on, and a wide, ready smile for anybody that passes by.

Everyone here is very free with their belongings, and even if you don't ask, they insistently give. It is invigorating to live as a community of families in this compound--a place not particularly beautiful or charming (except for the enormous pool that the place is built around). However, it makes me realize an often forgotten truth: people and friendships are the real treasures of a country. They are worth more than the architecture or manmade structures, which in Qatar resembles a high rise, sleek Gotham City on an emerald colored bay.   

Today I started teaching some middle school girls tennis in the courts in our compound.  They have been stopping me all week long to excitedly remind me of the time, and ask how many racquets I brought from the U.S.  There were six of them today to teach. One of the girls who was wearing her hijab came on the court at 4:00 pm and said, "It is still so hot."  I offered her some water, and she just said, "I am fasting today."  I said, "But it is not Ramadan."  She then replied, "I am just fasting for extra blessings."  This is a land of great faith, many faiths of devotion. 

Last week as I was walking down the street in the compound (to return something I borrowed), Abier stopped next to me in her car, and absolutely insisted that she take me to the grocery store--even though I didn't need anything, and had not asked. With the hijab covering her head, and the veil over her face, except to show her gorgeous eyes, she said to me, "Please do not make boundaries with me. I am your driver.  I can teach you how to drive, cook with Middle Eastern spices, and speak some Arabic.  Just knock on my door, I really mean it.  I am so glad you are my neighbor.  I tell everybody I am so glad you live next door to me."   At that moment, I knew she meant it, and I determined to remove the boundaries, the walls that we all subconsciously build or make with people--especially people who are different or who wear veils over their faces, and just show their eyes.  
Tonight we received two more dinners at the door, one Middle Eastern lamb dish, and Pakistani dumplings.  I must say, I like my new village of interesting people (and great cooks!).   One of my favorite poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay expresses how I feel tonight.  As I instructed these middle school girls on how to play tennis (while their younger siblings ran around the court), a young seventh grade Jordanian girl (who has lived in the US for several years), stopped our playing and pointed out the wondrous, transparent cloud that lit up the sky.  When we view clouds in Doha, we take notice of this small miracle in the desert--not much rain in this arid place, but a cloud, oh, a cloud is so beautiful amidst the white, gray expansive sky. I couldn't help but think of the lines of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem:  

"The soul can split the sky in two, 
And let the face of God shine through.  
But East and West will pinch the heart
that can not keep them pushed apart."

For many years, my heart was knit in Asia and home, the U.S.  But today I realized that my heart has added another part that is getting pinched--now The Middle East.  Kindnesses, unanticipated acts of service, the joy in seeing others merge into your sphere of the sky--all these things are worth moving on the other side of the world for.  

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,—        205
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.        210
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;


  1. Your writing is beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I am so happy you have started a blog!

  3. "Please do not make boundaries with me." This touched me so! I'm am so grateful you've started a blog ... I was going to beg you to do so! :) xoxo

  4. You are discovering why I fell in love with the middle East, and writing about it beautifully. It was the most friendly community I have ever lived in. I felt more at home there more readily than anywhere else that I have lived. I am so excited for the adventures you will have!

  5. What a treat it is to hear about your experiences -- thank you! I adore and admire you, dear Maryan!!!!

  6. "I am so glad you are my neighbor. I tell everybody I am so glad you live next door to me". . .
    Who among us would not say this given the blessing of living beside you? Your neighbor knows a great blessing when she sees it.