Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Tour of the World in a Few Hours

My son and a family friend, who was visiting with us.  Our friend is studying in Oxford, England this year, and came to see what Qatar was all about--trying to "open his sky."

      What's it like to attend a school that comprises 72 nations in the student body?  My high school senior is finding out.  Last week they had an International Week where everyone was able to wear their country's clothes, bring ethnic food, and celebrate at a flag ceremony.   Because he is rubbing shoulders daily with students from ever corner of the world, I know his life will never be the same again.  For example, one of his good friends is from Sudan--a place that before had seemed so far away on a map.

There was a flag ceremony, almost like the Olympics, where the students carried the flag of their country.  South Africa was represented by two students--one was black, and other one was white.  I was inspired by the respect, courtesy, and acceptance that was exhibited as each country carried their flag down the aisle.  Everyone cheered for every flag--all 72 of them.

Every child brought food from home that represented their country.  Since I am Icelandic, I appreciated that my heritage was represented from the lone student from Iceland.

A Canadian teacher dressed up for the occasion.

Platters of rice and lamb at the Middle East table.

The Middle East table with an abundance of Arabic cuisine.

The little girl in the middle is dressed up in Qatari traditional wear.

All the kids dressed up for the holiday.

The adults even dressed up, from almost all the 72 countries.  These are Danish moms serving the food that day.
The Greek moms started folk dancing to Greek music, and belted out a few 'Ompas' to the crowd as we clapped to the rhythm of the music.

The Asian section where they were making sushi!
My other son at his International Week with our neighbor and friend.
     Maybe I will never go to an Opening Ceremony at the Olympics, but today I felt the world shrink as different, diverse peoples laughed, danced, and tasted one another's foods.  Maybe they should try an International Week at the United Nations this year....







Tuesday, December 23, 2014

One Hundred Years Ago Tonight on a Belgian Christmas Eve....

This picture was taken during the Christmas truce near Ploegstreet, Belgium one hundred years ago.

First, the Germans would sing one of their carols, and then we would sing one of ours until when we started up 'O Come, All Ye Faithful. The Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing---two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war."
 --Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade

"I came to the conclusion," said a British soldier, Murdoch M. Wood, speaking in 1930, "that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves, there would never have been another shot fired. "

       The other night after hearing two amazing holiday Philippine choirs at a friend's compound, my high school son posed a question to me.  We were all very moved by the experience of hearing untrained voices sound like they belonged in a European concert hall.  He reflectively asked, "Mom, what am I going to do with my life after having all these incredible experiences?  Sometimes I wonder after meeting all these people from all over the world, I think, "What I am going to do because I was here? How different will I be because I came to Qatar my senior year?" 

The Philippines starts decorating for Christmas in early September, and Christmas carols are ringing everywhere as school begins.  
Since it is almost Christmas and one of my favorite stories, "The Christmas Truce" is being memorialized as happening one century ago, I couldn't help but think of an answer for him tonight.  I will recount the story tomorrow he has heard many times since he was a little boy.  But this time, I will say that I think he would have been like one of those young soldiers in World War I on December 24, 1914, on a Belgium battlefield.  He is 18 years old now, and likely the same age as many of those young soldiers on that night who decided to have peace, instead of fight--to play soccer, sing, and learn to have new friends.  Yes, I feel sure he would have serenaded his enemies with carols, and placed a candlelit Christmas tree on the battlefield on that Christmas Eve one hundred years ago.  He knows in a profound way--even more than a few months ago-- that all people are so very similar.  We all want to have a home, be loved, laugh loud, and discover and create new things.   

     The famous Christmas truce story that happened one hundred years ago tonight likely occurred because of one individual's idea--a young German soldier who wanted to celebrate Christmas instead of sitting in a freezing foxhole fighting a war.  A person or experience from his past influenced an unknown soldier to desire peace, and to rally others to instigate change.

It made me think that talking with people who may have different ideas or backgrounds than us, being willing to go across town or even across the street to meet someone new is so vitally important. It is never insignificant or trivial to extend oneself--to embrace another, to love in unexpected ways. Giving our children, in any way we can, a broadening scope of neighbors and others around us could be that particular experience that someday, somehow could be the impetus to bridge cultures. Perhaps it could even stop a battle--maybe a war.   

Whoever you are, Unknown German Soldier, who was fighting on Christmas Eve on that biting, wintry night, thank you. You might not have stopped WWI, but you brought to us one of my favorite Christmas stories. You transformed the world for one night, and in some ways, you have changed it for one hundred years ago--every time someone tells your story.

 And to my own wonderful son, I will try to keep fostering understanding and love for all peoples.  Because when we know and really grasp that belief, we can never really be the same again--even long after Christmas.  

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A new holiday to celebrate--National Qatar Day!

For a new expat in this country, it has been tremendous fun to see the excitement stirring here in the last few weeks for National Qatar Day.  It is a holiday that celebrates the unification and independence of the new nation of Qatar.  Buildings and homes are draped with huge flags, children are dressed as soldiers or in the colors of the flag, which are maroon and white.  There have been exhibits, presentation, parties, parades, fairs, and fireworks for a couple of weeks as a drumroll for the celebration on December18.

Interestingly enough, if you venture to the mall or expat compounds, you can even view Christmas trees and lights intermingled with the Qatar National Day festivities.   Indeed, it has been a very merry interlude before we celebrate Christmas in Qatar.

We went to a fair one night to view the traditions and culture of Qatar. Falconry is a huge sport in the Gulf.  The falcon's cage was in the little hut covered with hay.  Of course, all the little boys wanted to climb in.
We are listening to the translator tell us about the ancient tradition of falconry.  The old falconer to the right is telling how for centuries people have hunted with falcons.  They are indeed prized birds, and sometimes can fetch up to tens of thousands of dollars.
Young boys in our neighborhood who are playing soccer in front of this mosque, all of them barefoot.  Everyone has been in a celebratory mood--lots of food, sports, parades, and being with family and friends.
Almost every child is clothed in maroon and white, just like the Qatari flag.  These children are walking around the fair with a traditional Bedouin tent in the background

A two-story high flag hung on a pre-school--two stories high.  The Qatari flag is ubiquitous in this country in the last weeks.  Today I saw cranes ten stories high with the Qatari flag waving boldly in the faint breeze.  

A home wrapped with Qatar flags--showing great pride in their nation.

One of the favorite pastimes in Qatar--going to the camel race track (another post that is coming up).  There were flags and banners everywhere at the track.

At Ikea today with Qatar flags everywhere.

A Qatar flag in front of the grocery store today.

The Emir's picture is everywhere--on posters, cars, clothes, banners.

A Bedouin tent that was on display where men were listening to music, drinking coffee, and socializing.

My high school son dressed up for Qatar National Day.  

We waited in line at the fair about 45 minutes for the Qatari version of french fries.  They slice one potato with one curly cut, fry it on a stick, and put whatever condiment you desire.  Z. and P. anxious to try some Qatari fair food.

E. with his friends at school who are dressed up in their country's apparel.  The t-shirt was given to E. when he was doing archery at the fair the night before.   All the kids were encouraged to dress up in Qatar dress.  We tried our best to be patriotic to the country we are living in now.

A pearl boat representing Qatar's economy before oil was discovered.

 I heard a lot of Americans say National Qatar Day was the 4th of July on steroids.  We ended the day up on a rooftop to see a fireworks extravaganza.  I must say the Qatari enthusiasm, pride, excitement, and love for their country was evident everywhere.  You should come next year to see for yourself!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Meet My Mother Teresa

Dr. Maie in her classroom with my son.

Whenever I have an initial visit with someone who will work with my son who has autism, my head brims with questions. A few stray, clingy apprehensions rise up. Will this person see the intentional humor behind his occasional antics?  (Actually, he can be very funny, and has a great wit). Will they try to understand the deeper message he is trying to communicate that is sometimes masked by repetition and silliness?  Will they try to look beyond the label of autism--peel off the layers, so to speak, so they see the loving, inquisitive person who I know?

The first time I met with Dr. Maie, she immediately quieted any residual fears. As I sat across the table from her, she explained, "I trained as a pediatrician in Egypt, and practiced for a few years. But when I had a child with learning difficulties, I decided to change course. I studied special education in London and in Washington D.C. so that I could understand how to work with my son. You see, I know what it feels like to sit across the table with someone, a stranger, who will work with my child. Believe me, I know how you feel."

She continued, "I know your son can decode any book, but he struggles with comprehension. I have a program that I believe can help him, and I have used it for many years with my students. If we both work together, I think we can make some big strides. I want you to know that I will treat him as my son. When I look across the table at him, I will see my son."

As she spoke, a tear welled in both of our eyes. It was a moment of grace and revelation. I knew I was in the presence of a remarkable person--someone who had experienced intractable pain, but had deliberately transformed her life to alleviate others' suffering. She had forged another trajectory path to understand her son's journey, but in the process had given other children, without a voice, the gift of reading. To know profound loss, and then to give anyway reminds me of a quote by Elizabeth Kubler Ross: "The most beautiful people we (I) have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern.  Beautiful people just don't happen."  

Sometimes in my moments of unease or anxiety about my son's autism, I remember the incredible people who have shown understanding and compassion along the way--people who have made all the difference, even if it was only an encouraging word or smile.  I have to admit the autism journey has given me a front row seat to view some amazing, beautiful people. They have not only tutored my son, but have instructed and shaped me as well. The journey is not what I would have ever sought, but I feel so very blessed.

My son during his reading time--learning to "comprehend" more and more all the time.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary in Qatar

Any kind of moisture is a precious commodity in the Middle East--whether it is a wadi/oasis, well, or a precious drop of rain. This last week the children in my son's school who take Islamic Studies prayed for rain.  These prayers mirror centuries of their nomadic ancestors.  I was told by my Arabic friend today that Muslims have been praying for rain here recently, and to have two rainstorms in one week has added to many children's jubilance--including my own inner childlike joy.

A local artist's rendition of a desert oasis.  Believe me, these scenes are few and far between, but we are constantly on the lookout for them!
Today I was with some young children, and one of them excitedly exclaimed to their mom, "Look, Mom, it's raining. See the drops," as he looked up to the sky. You see, when you live in Qatar, raindrops are a marvel, a heralded event, a reason to celebrate.  The mom, my friend, was in a hurry, and replied in an incredulous way, "No, honey, it's not raining." But her four year old son insisted, "But Mom, it is too raining.  If you can't see it looking up, look down."

He was indeed right. A minute later we saw some flecks of rain sprinkled on the street and wet polkadot craters in the sand.  A little misty drizzle was swooping in to give us a surprise in this place--where the blazing sun could make a desert lizard want to be a tropical one. There was a leap of uninhibited joy from all of us, just from mere sprinkles of water in this arid land.

I planted bougenvillas to climb the gray, plain walls.
In our "compound" pool during the rainstorm,  there were children drenched from the sky as they swam--even puddles are an ever so thrilling sight here! What used to be for me a very normal, ordinary raincloud is now a cause to awe.

These past weeks the rain has reminded me to look for the delightful, the humorous, the beautiful in the everyday routines and rhythms of life.  As Mitch Albom states in his book, One More Day, "You can find something truly important in an ordinary minute"--where the ordinary transcends to the extraordinary."

My experiment these past weeks to discover the beauty in the common, everyday sights has reminded me of the color and grandness in this part of the world.  It is teaching me to be watchful for the exceptional that can happen in a split second--while knowing that I have to awaken my senses and awareness of the world around me. The pleasure of a desert sunset, the burst of a blooming flower, the marvel at watching young men learn to swim are all things that make me feel more alive, more happy.

Watching some young Pakistani in their late 20's swim for the first time in the Persian Gulf

The flowers blossoming on the trees in Qatar now.
Walter Isaacson wrote of Albert Einstein, “Throughout his life,  (he) would retain the intuition and the awe of a child. He never lost his sense of wonder at the magic of nature's phenomena-magnetic fields, gravity, inertia, acceleration, light beams-which grown-ups find so commonplace. He retained the ability to hold two thoughts in his mind simultaneously, to be puzzled when they conflicted, and to marvel when he could smell an underlying unity. "People like you and me never grow old," he wrote a friend later in life. "We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.”   

We adults need to strive to maintain that curiosity, surprise, and awe that heightens our souls.  I think it is one of the gifts of never growing old--internalizing the wonder and intrigue around you.  It is viewing with the eyes of a child that anything extraordinary can rain down upon you anytime--even when you live in a desert.

This is my daughter's piano teacher, Sister Alice Eugene Tighe, who is 98 years old  in this picture.  She received a Ph.D in music at University of Michigan and studied in France.  She climbed into our van several times in her mid-80's to go to piano competitions that crossed several states.  Her excitement for learning, and teaching music never escaped her--until her last breath.  She instilled a love of music to  several generations  of students--even sending a few off to Julliard.  I  never saw her without a thirst to learn more, and then to share. The world was endlessly fascinating to her.