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Sunday, October 12, 2014

On My Bookshelf: Mother Without a Mask

Recently I read MOTHER WITHOUT A MASK, a book about the early days here in the UAE (which can be picked up at many book shops or supermarkets in Abu Dhabi). It was written by Patricia Holton, a woman who came from New York (just like me), married a Brit (just like me) and somehow, through the confluence of passion, work and fate, ended up being deeply connected to an Emerati family during the 1970s and 80s in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.



It’s a phenomenal read if you want to understand the Emerati people and culture as she goes into her experiences with this family as well as traditions, stories and wonderful and compassionate explanations about the Emerati people (and people of the Arabian Gulf). For instance, why women wear burkhas, why sometimes important information is only offered up on an 'as needed' basis (a great insight into how business negotiations are done) and what an Emerati wedding extravaganza looks like. 

Holton also spent her time in the UAE during the time of transformation, and she writes about the changes to the place and people with a wistful preciseness. Reading it gave me a real sense of just how quickly things have changed here in the past forty years.

One passage in particular really called to me. In it, the author is visiting an area in Oman with her Emerati ‘son’ and another family friend and is overwhelmed by the experience... by how distant it is from her other life:

“What was I doing there? How did I get there? How did it all happen? There I was sitting on a wall with a young Arab Sheikh and an old Omani villager, sitting on the wall of an open mosque under date palms growing out of the cleft of a mountain a thousand miles away from nowhere. Ten thousand miles away from home. What was that song? That American folk song? Ten thousand miles away from home? I was living it out.

Was I the same person who had once sat wreathed in her grandfather’s cigar smoke listening to talks of the Indians? Was I the same person who stood watching white clouds scud over a blue New England sky…? Was I the same person who lay disobediently in the dolphin net of a schooner watching the green Long Island Sound cut under the bows?

Where was that child? Absorbed? Forgotten? How did she grow older and find herself here? Strange. Strange. What was the touchstone of my life? How was the pattern weaving? Towards what end?”

Some writers (including myself) write and write and write until the story reveals itself. But sometimes the story is real life. For Holton, when the invitation came to host two young Emerati ‘royals’ in her London home one summer and then accepted an invitation to have the hospitality returned with an invitation to visit the son’s family in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, a whole new life story began to reveal itself.

I doubt she has gotten rich off this book (and she goes to great lengths to protect the family she spent time with), but what she has left is legendary. Young Emeratis look to this book as almost a history of the UAE’s transformation era and of earlier times.  And until recently it was the only book written by a UAE expat (though technically, she is probably best described as a former frequent VIP visitor).  

Tonight I find myself sitting in the ‘camp’ at Art Hub Liwa (I’m a writer in residence for the International Historical Memory Festival), watching the sun play on the sand dunes where a large scale art work of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan shines. There is comfort and community here. But there is also isolation, heat and ants nipping at my feet. Just out of view is the massive and massively gorgeous Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali). And suddenly I feel so minuscule, like the time I was in a plane flying 35,000 feet high over Japan looking down at waves washing along the Island’s shoreline trying not to freak out at being so high, so far away and so completely out of control.

It's times like this that I think about Patricia Holton (she’s become my hero of the moment). With a series of ‘yes’ decisions, she saw a new and exciting world begin to unfold to her little by little and suddenly a new chapter in her life revealed itself and became immense.  

I love that she realized in the moment that this was something different, and special, and wrote about it. And she had those scary ‘what the hell am I doing here' moments and wrote about those, too. Instead of feeling alone, when I read that passage I feel like I'm actually okay, and it's normal to feel this way. Afterall, we’re all in it together out here in what I lovingly call ‘the sandpit.’


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