Dune bashing was only the beginning.
On 4/23-24/14, I participated in the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival in the United Arab Emirates; I was here for four days of the two-week event along with other American children’s book authors/illustrators including Peter Brown, Meghan McCarthy, and Stephen Messer.
Our appearances consisted of two types: morning talks at schools in Sharjah and an evening panel with academics from the Arab community.
Both were considerably different than any previous author experience I’ve had, and my compatriots had similar reactions.
Both of my Sharjah schools were all-girl and Arab; some authors spoke at Australian or Indian schools and/or all-boy schools. My students were about 12 and 13 years old.
Simply getting to the schools was an adventure. In my first week in the UAE, I’ve been in a lot of cars (not to mention three hotels), and none of the drivers have used GPS. I don’t recall seeing traffic lights in Sharjah. (And the hotels don’t have addresses in the sense we’re used to—no street number. Just “Corniche Street.” Or sometimes even just “near the Expo Center.”) Drivers seem to be guesstimating how to get to places.
My two schools were not only all-girl but also all-shy. I understand. I get the impression they rarely if ever have guest speakers, and almost certainly never a foreign, male guest speaker. I was surprised and impressed that the schools were open to a visitor like me.
Al Noof Government School
Shyness aside, the students were very sweet, and at the first school, the girls did come around by the end of my hourlong talk; a few asked questions, in part thanks to their teacher’s words of encouragement (in English). She invited me to come back and even gave me her cell phone so I could give her notice.
Using humor in this context was tricky. Different culture, different sensibility. The one time I remember the girls at the second school laughing was at the end of my presentation. I was trying to make them feel comfortable enough to ask questions so I said I have children of my own and they ask me lots of questions:
- “May I please stay up later?”
- “May I please have another cookie?”
- “Daddy, would you please stop talking?”
It was that last one that elicited some giggles.
Action at A Ta'la School.
The highlight of that panel (for me as an audience member) was what turned out to be one of many “incidents” during panels at the festival. While the psychiatrist was explaining the gravity and prevalence of child endangerment via the Internet, a man in the audience began to call out at her (in Arabic). Everyone—panelists and audience members alike—had small Star Trek devices in our ears for translations (English to Arabic or vice versa, depending on what you needed).
But the translator in the back of the room could not clearly hear the shouting audience man, who continued to interrupt the psychiatrist to the point that the translator began to plead “Peter Brown, Peter Brown, I can’t work like this! Please intervene!”
Though Peter was sitting next to the psychiatrist, what he (or anyone) could have done to remedy the situation was anyone’s guess. (I was surprised and saddened to later learn that the man was challenging the notion that there could be such abuse in Arab communities.) Luckily, the psychiatrist seemed to shut down the shouting man by saying “There is a fine line between commenting and insulting.”
The translator was either psychic or cybernetic. He translated almost simultaneously as the words came out of a panelist’s mouth, meaning he was both speaking himself and listening to what was being said without missing a syllable. We were in awe.
On 4/24/14, Peter, Meghan, and I went from Sharjah to Dubai to see the Dubai Mall, currently the world’s largest in terms of area, and Burj Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building. When in a foreign country for the first time, ordinarily none of us would likely go to a mall, but in the UAE, it’s another story.
The mall is indeed a spectacle. It is home to a huge, shark-filled aquarium in which you can scuba dive; presumably the sharks aren’t the human-chomping kind. The mall also includes almost any store you’ve ever heard of and probably at least a couple twice because the second one didn’t know the first one existed.
Meghan and Peter looking tough in front of a model of
the mall and the tallest building.
We are American. Sorry, this is not enough.
A hardcover one, no less.
Five times a day in Muslim communities, the call to prayer goes out. I haven’t heard it five times a day—it depends on where you are—but when I do, it’s quite lovely. And it was even piped into the mall.
At the bottom of “At the Top” (the observation deck,
which is the highest point paying customers are allowed to go).
By association, this must be the world’s longest shadow.
(Longest manmade shadow?)
View from the 124th-floor observation deck up the rest
of the 163-floor building (and up my nose).
You could pose against a green screen to be superimposed on a scene
of peril atop the building. Fun to watch people get in position.
For a fleeting moment, not counting people in planes,
we were the highest children’s book creators in the world.
Babies may not be accompanied by adults.
A view from the panel.
It was a curious honor that anyone who came to a panel about education with a focus on the Middle East would care what an American author with no Arabic experience had to say. But I am all for bridging gaps between cultures however possible.