2017 Theme Issue - Stranger(s)
I run a school in the desert. The United Arab Emirates hired me, an English-speaking, pseudo-Catholic from a foreign country, and put me in charge of their children. The honor has not been lost on me, an American woman. My school holds almost 600 Arab boys, all in high school. All Emirati. All Muslim. On so many levels, this is an odd educational experiment. But we all play our parts. We have learned respect for each other, and really that’s all that matters. This mutual respect of culture, custom, religion, belief, and language makes my every day joyous, filled with learning, lucky even.
Excitement runs through the school building today; there’s a notable change in the weather. On most days, the temperature is the only part of the daily forecast that changes, and then, not by much. A few degrees here; a few degrees there. When the air temperature reaches 115 degrees (and it does for a good part of the year), nobody pays attention to these small temperature changes. What difference does a few degrees make when it’s already so unbearable? As winter approaches, however, the few degrees of change move slowly down the temperature gauge until it settles at a steady, beautiful air temperature of 75 degrees Fahrenheit. After suffering through the summer heat, the change is not only welcomed, but celebrated. In the reprieve from the hell-like temperatures of the summer months, ACs are finally switched off and life moves outside. Sheeshas pop up on the balconies, and the fruity, fragrant smoke competes with the acrid smells of cars on the city streets. Patrons spill out of their local coffee shops to play backgammon and chess throughout the night. Runners appear on the hazy gulf, and campfires spring up all along the road that cuts its swath through the loneliness of the desert. But in general, even with a change in temperature, the weather report remains pretty much the same from day-to-day in the UAE: sunny, clear, blue skies, zero percent chance of rain.
Today, however, rain is predicted, and it has been predicted for much of the last week. The build-up—especially in the school building—has been enormous. Rain is coming. Rain is coming, we all feel it, and the electricity of it zips from person to person. I realize, as I watch the boys preparing for what is coming, that I have seen more rain in one week than most of them have seen in their whole lives. In fact, whole classes of students can combine their collective experiences with rain, and I would still have seen more in only one week. At home rain was a nuisance. But scarcity makes a thing more precious, and rain in the desert is more rare than the most precious gemstone in America.
There are several reasons why rain brings such excitement. The first is obvious. It hardly rains in the desert. Almost never, in fact. It happens so infrequently that it is considered spiritual, a gift from God. When it comes, the gift from God is recognized and acknowledged by the desert people. Al Hamdulillah, the Arabs respond to rain. Thank God in Arabic. Al Hamdulillah, the boys in my school repeat to each other to acknowledge its coming. Al Hamdulillah, I learned to say automatically at first. Al Hamdulillah, I now say and mean.
Rain also has the ability to defeat the assault of the desert sands . . . if only for a little while. There is so much sand. Too much sand. An infinity of sand: red and white and the beach-colored kind. There are the fine sands of Abu Dhabi and the coarse sands of Ras al Khaimah. On the golf courses there is imported sand from the US. (A little like selling the Brooklyn Bridge, wouldn’t you say?) There is sand that turns a twinkling, golden color when the sun hits it, and there is the metallic, coppery sand of the sunset. There is wet sand and dry sand and the kind of sand that is used to build the engineering miracles of man-made islands. There is so much sand that after only a little while in country, you forget to notice the sand that swirls around, permanently set in the air, covering and coating everything it meets. No one and nothing is exempt from its assault. Even the mountains make only sporadic stands against its intrusion. For most of the year the majestic Hajjar Mountains are hidden by the hazy, swirling, thickness lifted up from the desert floor. Like the hijab that covers the beauty of the women in this country, sand hides the face of the mountain range. So when the rain comes on those one or two days each year and the Hajjar Mountains reappear from behind its sandy veil, it is like the world is freshened and renewed and opened up to hope again.
There is a weird calmness as the school community stands at morning assembly, listening to the recording of the symphony playing the UAE National Anthem. Some of the words I know; after 20 months of hearing the same song every day, it’s hard not to pick up a few of them. I tap my foot to the rhythm, and mouth the song along with the boys: biladi, biladi, biladi. I don’t know what biladi means, but I know where it comes in the national anthem, and for now that’s enough. It helps me feel part of the community, less isolated. As I sing, I notice the grey around me. Clouds darken the sky; they’re unusual in a place where sunny, blue skies are the norm. The air is heavy, almost electric, and a wind is blowing—nearly cool, but not quite. We’re still in the desert, after all.
The students feel the coming rain, too, and they are ready for it. If and when it comes, everything will stop. EVERYTHING. WILL. STOP. Students, without asking for permission, will get up from their chairs and move to the windows to see the falling drops. If they’re lucky enough to see a downpour, they will leave their classes for the courtyard. There won’t be any trouble from the teachers. No permission is asked; no permission is necessary. Teachers, too, want to see rain. Outside the walls of the school building, cars will pull off onto the side of the road. Road crews will stop working. Truckers will bring their rigs to a dead stop on the highway. Government officials will walk out of high-level meetings. iPads flash pictures. Hundreds of videos catalog the event. Rain is so very unusual that all other matters—even the most important ones—stop in tribute to it.
In only a few moments at morning assembly, the clouds above the school community have become heavier, darker. One boy reads from the Quran, lifting his eyes from the page to look towards the sky. There’s a certain symbolic feel to the gesture, but we all know he’s looking for rain. Although he will equate the coming of the rain with Allah’s goodness, for sure. The eyes of the other students follow his lead, looking heavenward. Somehow it seems appropriate. No one corrects them. Their looks are greeted by a few drops of rain, not too many, not really rain yet, but still something.
After a few minutes the boys begin to move in lines into the school building. And the rain starts. Not drops, but real rain falls. Tentatively. As the students feel the raindrops, they stop. Every line. Every student. Every teacher. The administrators. We all stop. We all wait. There is an eerie silence as the students look first to each other and then towards their teachers for clarification. But all too quickly the rain stops. The forecast appears to have been right, but the sensation did not last long enough to satisfy. The disappointment outside the school building is obvious. Palms that had been raised to Heaven drop, and spirits temporarily deflate. Without any announcement to do so, the lines begin to move again. The teachers and the students dissolve into their classrooms.
“Yalaa, shabop (hurry, young ones),” security calls to the students, pointing them towards the doors of the school. Heads drop in response. Gaits quicken. And then the wind blows a bit harder; there’s a hint of coolness in it. The students’ anticipation grows in response, goosebumps raise up on their skin, their excited chatter increases. I know it’s going to be one of those days when even the simplest lesson will be a struggle; bodies will be inside, but minds and hearts will be outside.
I, too, move inside, feeling somehow let down by the scarcity of the promised rain. Sitting at my desk, I can look straight through the glass walls of my office through the hallway windows to the courtyard. The red, white, and green of the UAE flags flutter and the sand in the courtyard begins to swirl in the gathering wind. A flash of lightning. A rumble.
And then the skies let loose.
It’s raining. Really raining. Puddles are forming, and the drops dance in the standing water. When I was a kid, we called the pings of drops in puddles, rain ballerinas. I am comforted by something that had always seemed so ordinary. Rain ballerinas, I feel throughout my whole being. I feel both connected to home and homesick, all at the same time. This world that is always so different from the world I grew up in suddenly shares this one, singular phenomenon with home. And I belong. Like a good pseudo-Emirati, I open the mobile phone and take a video. How did something so commonplace, I wonder, become something so extraordinary? I capture the sound of the raindrops for later, for when I need to be reconnected to my familiar.
The faces of the boys are pressed against the windows of the school. Teachers’ too. I see a local man, around my age, standing outside, arms stretched wide, palms turned upward. Al Hamdulillah, I see him mouth as I watch him through the window. His white kandura—the coat-like robe of the gulf Arabs—is being splattered by the falling rain. At first there is just a series of spots, an abstract painting of white on white, but within a few moments, the spots connect, and he is wet. Really wet. Kanduras are white, you know, so Mr. Abdallah is not hiding a thing as he stands in the rain, eyes closed, arms outstretched, smile wide on his face, turning round and round. Al Hamdulillah, he sings over and over again to the sky. He doesn’t seem to care about his sudden lack of modesty. Mr. Abdallah meets the exceptional with the exceptional.
“Just one or two minutes,” Mr. Abdallah tells me after coming in from the rain, “will make you clean, right to your heart. Go. Walk.” He pushes me to the door, without touching me, of course. Muslim men do not touch women, and he affords me the same respect even though I’m not Muslim. He positions his body in a way that gives me almost no choice but to follow his words, and I move outside.
I feel the rain for the first time in almost two years. Al Hamdulillah, I say, as I lift my face to the drops. Al Hamdulillah, Mr. Abdallah responds to me at the door to the school. Al Hamdulillah, I say again, noticing, maybe for the first time in my life, how good rain feels on the skin. I close my eyes and breathe it all in. Al Hamdulillah. And all I know for sure is that, as the rain pours down on the desert streets and the steam rises from those same streets in response, I swear I can smell the heat being washed away. Hot has a smell in the desert.