People are people the world over. We know that, right?
I feel a little embarrassed even saying it. Yet it’s something I really feel like stamping my feet and shouting out about right now. You see earlier this year myself, my husband Chris and our 7-year-old son Ollie (not to mention Rosie the dog!) relocated to the Middle East from our former home in the South West of England.
I’m just so thrilled and excited to be discovering this part of the world that’s so often in the news due to the troubles going on in one region or another; I’m thrilled to discover what I had suspected all along: that so much of it is, well, just ordinary.
And I think that’s an important point that’s easy to lose sight of. Through the incessant focus of the media on the bad, the ugly and the terrible, we lose touch with another, potentially more powerful reality. Sometimes – maybe most of the time in fact – we need to refocus on the plain and ordinary as a reality, rather than the extreme.
That point was recently hammered home to me by the story of the Florida pastor who threatened to burn the Quran on the anniversary of September 11th. On the same day I saw this news story I made to a trip to our local shopping mall. Both happened on the same day and are miles apart in so many ways, but somewhere I saw a connection.
I now live in a great city called Doha, which sits on the coast of the small Arabic state of Qatar. Iraq sits a little further north on the Arabian Gulf, with Iran across the water. It’s not as flashy here as our near neighbors, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but it’s got its fair share of sparkly malls, skyscrapers and swanky hotels as well as the more traditional, historic parts of Arabic life and culture too. Many nationalities live and work here alongside the local Qatari population. Therefore there are many religions here with mosques on every street & prayer rooms in shopping malls.
Religion here is a way of life. The way it just slots into everyday life is illustrated when I see a teenage girl emerging from her prayers in the women’s room in the mall, with her mobile phone already flipped open in hand, eager to resume texting her friends no doubt. The 5 times a day prayers just fit in to the day-to-day. Whether you’re getting your groceries weighed at the supermarket or searching for a new outfit, the store music stops and the call to prayer sounds out, and people just do what they need to do – continue to shop or go and pray.
So back to the day in question. I was having a bit of me time at the mall and was in the shoe section of a large department store. There was another lady browsing in the same area as me, a local lady, dressed in her black Abaya, accessorised with rings and bangles, a great handbag over her arm and immaculate make-up. We both had shopping baskets in hand and were quietly working our way around this one particular island of shoes. I chose a pair of grey suede and patent shoe-boots – since it’s coming to the end of the summer and although temperatures won’t drop far below 68 degrees until it starts to heat up again, I wanted to mark the change in ‘season’ by branching out into shoes rather than sandals.
So I found my size, made my way to the seating area, tried them on, walked over to the mirror, decided they were miserably uncomfortable, glanced back to the shoe island, and saw the other lady carefully inspecting a different pair of shoe-boots.
I liked those, so I went back, replaced the reject shoes, and looked for my size in this new pair, black suede this time, very cute. I found the right fit, tried them on and glanced in the mirror. They felt great! They looked great! And after checking the sticker on the sole – discovered the price was great too!
By this point, I sensed that my shoe-shopping companion was subtly glancing over to me, and I think I saw a flicker of approval on her face so I send a subtle smile back to her. Sitting back down, I changed back to my sandals, put my new shoes in the basket and as I turned for the check-out, I half turned towards the other lady to say goodbye in some non-verbal way, and I noticed that she too now had her pair of cute black suede shoe-boots in her basket. She looked content, I was too. We had our shoes. Life was good.
It was one of those little day-to-day experiences that I value. This lady and I, we had taken cues from one another, shared a similar sense of style and come to the same conclusions.
I could have chosen any day-to-day event from here – a group of teenage boys, dressed in their smart dishdashas, strolling through the mall chatting & laughing, mobile phones and cigarettes in hand; the local men seated in Starbucks sipping espressos while the women-folk shop; the mother and her children, trudging around the shoe store piled high with boxes, trying to find school shoes for the new term; the munching of popcorn and slurping of cola in the IMAX, watching Toy Story 3; the ladies’ restrooms, brimming with gossiping females, gathered around the wash-basins and mirrors, applying perfumes and make-up, the clitter-clatter of vertiginous heels, fun in the air…
But this one little event stuck with me, perhaps partly because it made me feel good and more at home here but also because it so sharply contrasted with the news story I mentioned earlier. Because it’s when I get home that I hear about the Quran burning preacher, and I just can’t see how it relates to anything, just as the original, horrific act of terror didn’t, how it can have any place anywhere. But somehow, fear has a way of taking a hold, of looming large, especially because of the TV news and other media.
So it’s then that I hold onto the ordinary, I hold onto that reality, the shoe-shopping, popcorn munching, family prioritizing reality and I try to remember that the ones causing problems, whomever they may be (terrorists, extremists, those in political, religious or economic power) are in the minority and this ordinary reality is far greater. Remembering that makes me feel a bit better about the world…
Nikki Newman, 36, from England, currently lives in Qatar, where she moved this year due to her husband’s work. A former teacher and proud mother of 7-year-old Oliver, she’s currently focusing on settling her family into their new lives, while also pursuing her passion for painting. To see Nikki’s work please go to: www.nikkinewmanart.com