Sunday, November 2, 2014

Unexpected Sisters

Some Ommi dolls that are popular with the expats here.
One of the best parts about living abroad is bridging disparate cultures, and developing unexpected friendships.  I have experienced close, loving relationships in unfamiliar settings many times--in Southeast Asian refugee camps where I taught, and with people who spoke little to no English in other parts of the world.  However, when a friendship develops with someone who is so vastly different than myself,  I am always happily surprised; the joy of these connections never eludes me.   I love my new neighborhood of expats for this exact reason; it is a crossroads of divergent people from many  cultures, backgrounds, and languages.   There are not many places in the world where you could find so many countries represented.  Every day I find it a delightful adventure to try and understand their worlds.

When my next door neighbor, Abier, who wears a burka, reached out to be my friend, I would not have realized the joy that her friendship could have brought to me.  She is a strong-willed educated engineer with five small children who comes from Palestine.  If she hears about any children who are not doing well in math, she wants to tutor them.  Every day she fills up her large SUV with her own children, and several others in the compound to take them to school.  With her wry, witty sense of humor, she calls them her "customers."

Abier and I share walls in our compound.  She lives on the right side, and I live on the left.
A few weeks ago, she decided that she was going to help me get my driver's license (it is not an easy feat for Americans).   It has been one of her foremost goals, you might say, to get me officially behind the wheel again.  She repeatedly tells me, "I am going to learn you to drive."   I told her I have been shuttling people around for decades.   She laughs when I tell her one summer that I drove 8,000 miles around the US to go visit family and friends with my kids.

 I must say it is a wonderful advantage to go to the driver's school with an Arabic speaking friend to navigate the Arabic signs, procedures, and to communicate for you.  As we walked into the several rooms with hundreds of people, she in her long black abaya and burka, and me in my colorful skirt and scarf, most heads turned our way.  We are not a common duo to see out in public.

When we reached the office to the director of the driver's school (a very kind Jordanian man),  she motioned for me to sit in a chair while she spoke to him.  I did not reply, and sat quietly because I knew she was trying to navigate this Qatar driver's license maze for me.  She looked at me with her unusually gorgeous eyes, and I could perceive she was saying, "Don't say anything.  I got you here this far.  I can handle this." And then another glance came my way that I could also intuitively understand.  It meant, "You can do this.  I know you can."  No words were said between us in the office.  I do not understand any Arabic, but I comprehend her wordless messages to me--with only her eyes speaking to me.

While we waited for the test, she quizzed me on a few questions, and then when my name was called, she said,  "I will hold your purse.  You can do it.  I know you can."  A few minutes later,  I came out triumphant, and I glimpsed her waiting at the door for me--to hear that I passed (at least the written part).  When I saw her so joyous, a tear came to my eye, and I gave her a big hug.  She squeezed my hand when I expressed thanks for helping me, and then waved off my gratitude by saying, "I am your neighbor.  We are sisters."  

It is a most wonderful feeling to collect unexpected sisters in unforeseen places.  As I said, I have known the feeling of unanticipated sisterhood before, but I have never had a "sister" who wears a burka.   Abier has taught me that I do not have to be  uncomfortable when I see women who wear burkas; they are not formidable to friendship.  And furthermore,  I know now that I have the capability of communicating with people--even if I can only see their eyes.  It is indeed true that the eyes are the window to the soul.