(I wrote this last year when I lived in Dubai, and thought I’d share)
My son has great taste in mothers. As he races around the playground with his beloved Hussam, his first best friend, I drink coffee and chat with Hussam’s mother, a woman of incredible intelligence and knowledge, of deep calm and sweetness.
My son chose my mother friends from the week he was born. Slipping into his Maya Wrap, he’d point his little nose forward and away we would go, on the subway to the Breastfeeding Center to sit every Tuesday with likeminded new mothers. From these weekly hours of conversation, advice, laughter and tears, a nucleus of friendship was born.
Under our collective mothers’ gaze, our children learned to sit, to crawl, to run; each week we would gather at someone’s home, potluck lunches in hand, to continue to lend support and comfort on this rollercoaster of new motherhood. As our children got older and the group faced puzzled questions from well-meaning onlookers - “You’re still nursing him past 12 months?” - we sailed on, secure in the knowledge that all our friends were doing it. If someone was having a rough day, help was just a phone call away, and the women would be there, to help pick up, to entertain a cranky toddler, to lend a shoulder to cry on. My son chose these women for my friends, and leaving them behind was the hardest part of moving away. Who would I be able to call for support, for mother love, for wisdom and a helping hand? I was going to be on my own for the first time since my son was born.
Friendships travel a twisting road here in Dubai; there are so many ways in which ‘otherness’ gets in the way. For all that Dubai is being touted as the “Switzerland of the Middle East”, when it comes to friends, everyone takes sides. Sometimes all the openness in the world cannot bridge the cultural, social, economic and patriotic divides that run through the shifting sands of this country along its relatively benign strike-slip faults. For example, no one in full Arabian dress, of purda and hijab and burqa, has ever sought me out and befriended me, nor are any of my friends laborers or members of the ’service class’. My sub-Continental friends are all Londoners by self-definition, Muslim, and beautiful. My other Muslim friends come from Jordan and Turkey and Palestine, intelligent and fierce and burning bright with life in their simple, colorful scarves that hide only their luxurious hair, not their animated faces. Sweet Russian ladies with their darling Greek mothers-in-law: “Me no talk English so good… Me in Sharjah 15 years now,” proud of all her babies and grandbabies… and you want to hug her and learn to talk just like that. My fiery New Zealander mum with her sharp wit and take-no-prisoners attitude has propped me up whenever the pressure of living so far away has become too great. And every one of these women has been found by my son.
The differences between us are discussed, sweetly, kindly, with an openness of mind that surely should give hope that all is not lost in this world, that the different religions of the world can find a way to understand and tolerate each other. I was bemused, amused and somewhat mystified to find myself trying to explain to a young Lebanese woman that Mardi Gras is not a gay/lesbian parade. This led to a discussion of Lent, which led to a discussion of Ramadan, and the inevitable comparison thereof. Conversations about art and literature give way to discussions of why depicting living things in Arabic art is haram, forbidden, which might lead to a discussion of Western film, and inevitably ends with me laughingly trying to dispel some Hollywood myth or another. These women dig deep for the truths that lay close to their hearts. I take a lesson from my son; he doesn’t dwell on the differences between him and his friends. His preschool is a candy shop of sweet, delightful kids from all over the world: each one a treat, no matter their superficial differences. All he knows is that he’s having fun, and is loved.
There is an undercurrent of fear, an unspoken reluctance to invest any great affection in those you meet and befriend - though the fear is not from what you might expect. Racial tensions are minimal, at least on the surface, and what tensions exist here are more between the laborers and the employers who do not pay them. No, the trouble with making friends here is that you inevitably lose them. The population in Dubai is largely transient, subject to transfer at any time, as was the case with our favorite Corsicans, who abandoned us for Houston last summer. Any friendship here is founded on a great leap of faith and forbearance. What gives these friendships a chance to grow is our children.
The ladies who now add sparkle to my days are the young mothers my son brings to me through his friends at school, at the park, on the playground. He doesn’t care who prays to whom, what language is spoken at home, what color skin one boy or another girl sports. Indeed, his classroom is an extraordinary display of the entire monochromatic spectrum that is human tint, from palest, freckle-flecked cream to beautiful ebony that drinks in light and glows with a secret. And so we meet, the mothers, over our children, for our children, who run drunk with delight in discovery, with the joy of friends for the first time, childish crushes on this kid or that to the exclusion of all others. We make time for our children to get together, we share a coffee or a biscuit, we talk about our kids. We might fall into step on our way to those places frequented by women with little ones: the playground, the grocers in the middle of the day, the ice cream parlor. We make first contact with other mothers through their children, with a kind word or a casual gesture of ruffle-haired affection. The children play together effortlessly and the mothers edge slowly nearer to each other, working in tandem to keep play happy, keep it peaceful, keep it safe. By the end of the day, we might know each others’ names, after bungling the pronunciation on both sides a bit, and will have made tentative plans, perhaps, to meet again at the park soon. But friendship? Having the kids running in and out of each other’s homes? That step takes courage and time for a shy expat like me.
One afternoon I watched in some amusement as a young woman in abaya shepherded a gaggle of children towards some indeterminate destination. My son and I were, without a doubt, on our way to the canal to play some football and with luck insh’allah , find a new friend. As my little boy scooted along on his push car, now fast now slow, now all over the sidewalk, I kept an eye on this other mother’s progress. At first moving tangent to us, they soon tacked back on a course that put them on our path, walking behind but catching up, as my son doesn’t have a license to drive. With good reason. We fell into step, laughed at the children’s antics, and by the time we had reached the canal, my wee adventurer had fallen in love with all the new children, from nearly teenagers to nearly toddling, and we became part of the gaggle. The evening fell and I sat, on the steps of the mosque, in obvious delight with this charming open woman. We talked into the dark, chatted until our kids were exhausted — she had borrowed her neighbor’s children to accompany her and her one year old son to the canal.
The Eye of the Emirates lit up, white against the purple ink of a newly darkened sky, and still we talked. The call to prayer pulled the neighborhood to the mosque, and we watched the children left outside to play, and talked about marriage, and love, and children. She was married at 15 to her first cousin, happily in love with him for ever before, though this was certainly forbidden, and a dangerous thing to do. She goes to University now, perhaps all of 18 or 19 years old, from Palestine. And she is my delightful friend, to call up for a cup of tea and a rendez-vous at the play park with the kids, talk of adventures in Dubai and a summer of gathering the mothers we know together with the sprouts to play indoors and laugh the heat away.
I have great wonderful sparkling beautiful vibrant women friends again. It’s nice to look younger than I am, al hamd’allah. Cause you know, I don’t wear the traditional garb here. I’m on display, short hair and all.