For some who come to the United Arab Emirates to live and work, bridging cultural chasms is a challenge that can be unresolved. Building bridges between cultures, among individuals, enriches all who take on the engineering challenge.
It is not uncommon for a newcomer, including those of us arriving from North America, to abandon efforts to share all that is new with friends and relatives back home; instead, it is easier to list the few things that are common.
For some, the differences are too daunting to deal with: language, food, religion, lifestyle, work environment — the list can seem endless.
For others, however, there are opportunities to build bridges, to share experiences, and begin to catch a glimpse of another man’s perspective on the world.
For me, such a man was Obaid Saeed.
Obaid was my friend at Khutwah, a mountain oasis community in the Mahadah district of Oman, an oasis made famous in an off-road guide for foreigners.
I first met Obaid about in the late 1990’s when I walked past the blue doors of his modest home and poked my head inside. My intrusion was met with an enthusiastic greeting and he and I sat down for dates and coffee. I saw him a few more times that season and was introduced to his sister Fatima.
No one knew how old Obaid was. He could not stand erect, the result of an accident many years ago. His eyes were clouded with cataracts but the limited vision he had plus his acute hearing meant he recognized individuals almost instantly.
After our initial meeting, a period passed when, for one reason or another, we did not see each other. As Obaid told the story, it was five or six years, but my recollection is that it was only one.
Nonetheless, one day I rang the bell and wandered in again. Immediately Obaid smiled and it was obvious that he recognized me. And so began a friendship that lasted for many years.
How does a friendship develop between such different individuals? Though I had been in the Gulf, off and on, for decades, my Arabic language skills were extremely modest. Obaid knew no English. He was born in Khutwah, had lived his entire life in Khutwah, and, he smiled and said one day, he would die there.
I took several of my Arabic-speaking friends to meet him, in hopes of learning more about him and his life. He’d been to Muscat once and had met the Sultan. He had been to Mahadah, about 25 km distant, several times. And he had been to the oases at Al Buraimi — now Al Ain (UAE) and Al Buraimi (Oman) — two or three times; his recollection was not clear.
He loved his life in Khutwah, though a visitor might think the living conditions squalid. Knotted plastic bags containing unknown material were piled everywhere. The television was often on, but ignored, and his old rotary phone had a lock on it; it was, I soon learned, the only land line into Khutwah where mobile phone reception was almost non-existent.
Obaid understanding of the world outside Khutwah was always one of the things I wanted to know. Understanding Obaid’s world at Khutwah was equally challenging.
For many years, Obaid was a generous host to members of the natural history group any time we visited the oasis. He always had fresh coffee and dates for visitors. He sometimes shared his mid-day meal with me; rice and mutton that was always delicious. A few years ago, he was featured on the front page of the Friday magazine of Gulf News after we invited a Gulf News reporter and photographer to join us for a visit to Khutwah.
Coffee was always ready when anyone at Obaid’s home, and he, like most Arab men I know, took great pride in his coffee making. The way his face radiated left no doubt in the joy he felt preparing and sharing coffee with friends or complete strangers. One day he asked if I would bring him some coffee beans and I was thrilled at the opportunity. I visited several roasteries in Al Ain and settled on a couple of kilos of what seemed to me the finest roasted coffee available. In typical fashion, Obaid received the bag of coffee beans without a fuss and we enjoyed our time together that day without any mention of the beans. The next time I arrived, Obaid was angry with me. He had eventually opened the bag of beans I had delivered and had promptly roasted them to a charcoal consistency; I had not appreciated that roasting green beans was part of the joy and chore of preparing coffee.
He was equally proud of his dates which he kept in the ubiquitous plastic tub. As a sign of respect, as I was sipping coffee, he would separate a date from the compressed mass of dates, massage it slowly between his thumb and fingers, expertly extract the pit, and hand me the warm, softened date. It was always humbling.
There are many stories about Obaid:
Early in our relationship, we were sitting and chatting and I realized he was asking for a length of plastic pipe, the PVC pipe that was everywhere in the old villages, used to move water from the falaj system to the house where it was pumped to the roof tanks. ‘Mia meters,’ he would say, and that was some of the very little Arabic that I understood from our conversations. I took note of the size and type of pipe he had in his yard and returned a week later with a huge coil of pipe. It was then I realized that Obaid did not have any family that visited him regularly and so he was often unable to get things he needed.
On one visit, at one point in our ‘conversation,’ he grabbed my arm and started to rub it firmly with his gnarled fingers. He kept repeating a word in Arabic. He would rub his own arm, showing me the motion, and then rub his shoulders. I had no idea but I did make a note of the word he kept repeating, using a form of phonetic recording that I later would use with my students to try to translate Obaid’s mountain dialect. No success! Even when I used a phone to record his request, none of my students, even the ones from Oman, could understand his request. But I had a phonetic version and, thanks to one of my students, an approximation in Arabic. Then one day, I was shopping in a general store and noticed Arabic script that was very similar to the script my student had offered. It was a small massage unit. I bought one, and a large supply of the large batteries required, and delivered it to Obaid the following weekend. It was exactly what he wanted, I suspect for his arthritis.
His home in Khutwah was a common cinderblock home with painted cement plaster, ceiling fans and large carpet on the floor. The classic Arab-style ‘seating’ was a foam cushion on the floor with numerous pillows for back rests and arm rests. There was no central heating system but Obaid did have a small electric heater. One winter, I arrived to find him and Fatima obviously suffering from the cold; the element in his electric heater had burnt out. Fortunately, I was able to find a replacement in a hardware shop in Al Buraimi and get the heater working again the next weekend.
One weekend, I was leading a small group of female students from one of the campuses of the Higher Colleges of Technology to the mountains and abandoned villages around Khutwah. It would not be a trip to Khutwah without a visit to Obaid’s home. Obaid was thrilled to see the young visitors though they had a little difficulty communicating given Obaid’s dialect. The young ladies were, to say the least, surprised and speechless that Obaid and I had such a friendship.
Obaid was always happy; I don’t recall ever seeing him dour or upset. But one day, he was beaming from ear to ear. One of my favorite things to do while living in the region was to find a baker who prepared flat bread in the traditional way, in a tandoor oven. There was a baker in Mahadah who always was preparing bread for the daily meals; bread must be fresh for each meal; none is ever kept for a meal later in the day. One day, my drive through Mahadah en route to Khutwah, allowed me to pick up some bread. When I delivered the bag of fresh bread to Obaid, his face beamed. Other than fresh (green) coffee beans, I doubt there was anything I could have offered that was more appreciated. We feasted that day on coffee, dates, and fresh baked bread.
There was one occasion, however, that left me humbled beyond words. It was the weekend I and three others had been stuck in the mountains as we tried to walk from Musah to Khutwah. I had left my truck in the town square beside Obaid’s house, as I had a hundred times before. (Obaid always insisted he knew the sound of my truck and would reprimand me thoroughly if I visited the oasis and did not stop in to see him.) After the rescue helicopter picked us up, I was given a ride to Khutwah to retrieve my truck. When we pulled in to the square, waiting there were several of the laborers who worked the farms at Khutwah and, crouched on the rocks outside his gate, Obaid. If you were a regular at Khutwah, you knew Obaid seldom, if ever, wandered outside the gate. When he saw me and realized we were all safe, he smiled.
It is impossible to describe that smile. It was not so much that he was relieved. Instead, it seemed to reach deep down into his character, his culture. A devout man, there was, on his tired, wrinkled face, that sense of calm that radiates from a person who has resolved many of life’s mysteries and placed his life, his soul, in the hands of his God.
He grinned and insisted I go to the market and buy a sheep so we could all celebrate the happy ending.
It was an incredible moment.
I am sad to report that my dear friend Obaid of Khutwah has passed away.
One Friday morning I arrived at the ‘town square’ and noticed that the gate to Obaid’s was locked. I had never seen it locked before . . . closed, yes, but never locked. One of the laborers explained that Obaid had been ill and was taken to hospital in Buraimi a few weeks earlier. He passed away at the hospital.
In many of our conversations, Obaid had asked about my religion. There was genuine concern, not that I shared his faith, but that I had faith. Given the language barrier, he and I never had the conversation we might have enjoyed.
But one day, a friend who seemed to have no difficulty understanding Obaid, began a conversation with my dear friend. Obaid insisted, my friend explained, that regardless of my religious convictions, he was sure that I would not have to crawl into paradise as he anticipated he would. I would be able to walk into paradise, he insisted.
And then, my very surprised colleague explained, Obaid had insisted that I be ready to attend to his funeral when he died. He was frightened that he might die in his villa and, with no relatives nearby, the foreigner laborers in the village would simply remove his remains and bury him without the appropriate customs in a simple grave outside the village.
Obaid had a way of making an individual feel humble.
An observer would recognize immediately that Obaid and I had little if anything in common. Our individual worlds were about as dissimilar as one could imagine.
Nonetheless, we were able to bridge those differences and come to appreciate, respect and, I suspect, love one another, sharing what will always remain precious moments together.
Differences between individuals can be exploited or overcome; the rewards of building bridges across the chasm can be some of the most valuable in any individual’s life. I know it has been in mine; recalling the sparkle in his eyes, the smile on his face, I am certain it was for my dear friend Obaid, as well.