“No man can live this life and emerge unchanged, he will carry however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match” Wilfred Thesiger.
The words of Wilfred Thesiger are important here for me, as having just returned from what is affectionately known as the Oasis City of Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates I have a little story to tell. For this land leaves a certain something deep within your heart, something that is indescribable.
With so much written and read about the Middle East everyday, in every newspaper, every newsreel, constantly bombarding us with tales of sadness, never much joy comes to us about these Middle Eastern lands.
It is then important I feel, to write my words here. So much fighting is shown each and every day, so much talked about, so many violent acts, such terrible loss and disregard for life is ours to see and hear daily…
But I want to tell you a little tale that occurred to me while shopping in the souks of Al Ain and I wonder if we would have behaved in the same manner or reached out ‘the hand of friendship’ when shopping in shall we say London, or even the suburbs. I would like to think yes, I have to hope yes, but I wonder in this current climate that has change us all, changed the way we view the Middle East, altered people thoughts radically and has in fact cast a shadow that has befallen this country of ours.
I travelled back to this most peaceful part of the world after more than thirty years and I state with a true heart and a clear conscience that the Emirati people are probably one of the most gentle races I have ever encountered.
Respect has always been a top priority when travelling in the Middle East – you know – “when in Rome do as the Romans do” and I have embraced these guidelines, when living there, and all of my travelling days. I am always polite and courteous, it goes without saying really, never any different from home but aware of the respect that must be afforded to these gentle people and I also smile a lot, which always seems to break-down any barriers that may occur.
And so to my little tale of trading friendships:
I was shopping in a rather beautiful perfumery shop – outside of the lush marbled malls but still in the main town of Al Ain. It was a very fine establishment and as we approached the shop (my son and I) we could see clearly that there was a local woman completely covered from head to toe shopping with her servant girl, their eyes down cast and with a demur countenance. The local woman was in deep conversation with the shop keeper, the small servant girl quietly waiting to carry her mistress’s purchases. The local lady seemed to be selecting gold covers for tissue boxes or maybe gold covers for her perfume bottles?
We paused at the entrance to the shop, as not to disturb the lady and as my son was contemplating entering, the owner of the shop opened the door and welcomed us with customery greeting and offered small sealed cartons of water to both of us and placing a chair for me (it was in excess of 43c that midday, so I was grateful to sit awhile) we very happily entered the airconditioned shop. It is normal to be greeted this way and nothing unusual about that but sometimes the ladies of this land do not wish to make personal purchases while other men – other than the shop owners – are present. We knew well of this custom but were pleased to enter.
It was a stunning shop, full to the brim with perfume bottles, scents and oils, many bottles and items solid 24ct gold, the smell was divine, not overpowering as some may think. Subtle, light jasmine aromas, nothing heavy. I went to the other counter well away from the woman who was in active conversation with an assistant. I did not look her way and nor did Jo but I took the grateful seat offered at the counter and after normal greetings we proceeded to test the oud oils and perfumes. Now all who know me well, understand that I favour and always have done, the scent of roses. I love Chanel No 5, the way Chanel uses the early May roses for the sweetest smell and also Coco Chanel – these are the scents I would choose every time above all others so I had a real fancy to buy some Essential Rose Oil…
The smiling helpful shopkeeper started to open copious small bottles of these essential oils and reached to dab a selection on my wrists and lower arms and also to Jo’s arms, when I had run out of space! I tried to find the right word for Rose. “Rosa”, “Rouge” even the Arabic word ‘Warda’ meaning rose. I tried’ Zahra’, which I know means flower but no Rose essence appeared. He was not an Arab, but an Asian gentleman and most helpful in fact but I could not seem to convey Rose to him. Jo tried too but to no avail. This interchange went on gently and quietly for some time. Every possible scent was applied but none of them my favourite rose, I have a good ‘nose’ for it. My eyes are not so good these days but my sense of smell has always been acute, I know the smell of roses a mile away and one good ‘sniff would confirm. He continued with more potions… No rose essence appeared…
It was a lovely experience in this beautiful emporium, no doubt about it but unbeknown to me it was about to become a very special day, such a joyful memory, such an unexpected delight on this very hot April day in this oasis desert town.
Here my small tale unfolds: Unexpectedly the Arab lady came up behind me, slowly and silently – her face completely covered in full burkah – she lightly placed her lovely hand on the counter and spoke very quickly and directly to the helpful assistant. He immediately turned to a small bottle tucked way towards the back, was this the ‘rose,’ perhaps a precious commodity in the desert. I didn’t think so, for I had see roses in gardens of hotels not like our English roses but roses never-the-less.. The Arab lady with the oh so beautiful eyes that did not look at Jo once, keeping her eyes downcast and towards me took the small bottle from the assistant and tipped a small amount of the essence on to the silk of her robe. She looked at me and indicated that using material was the real way to test several perfumes, she lifted a small piece of her cuff and indicated that I should do the same, then she passed the bottle to me and I tipped a tiny amount onto the rather brightly coloured chiffon scarf I was wearing – wishing I had worn something rather less bright at this point – she smiled broadly, I could see her twinkling eyes change above her burkah, then she placed her hand uppermost indicating this was indeed the ‘rose’ I had been looking for. Without a word another smile appeared beneath the mask, a look that can only cross between two woman – this time one Eastern and one rather elderly English lady who needed just a bit of help in finding her hearts desire.
And this is where my question is asked – would we have done the same in a London store? – would we have backed away, would we have assisted in a genuine manner, without fear or prejudice? Would we have indeed been fearful? I looked straight at her with my green eyes and bright blonde hair and my made-up face and I smiled. I am tall and statuette, she was tiny and dainty but between two woman a bridge had been built, an understanding made. But I ask, would we have offered the hand of friendship? Would we have helped, got close and engaged. You are probably saying as you read this, “well of course we would” but would you? Really would you – say in a large London Store?
I smiled and thanked her in my best and most profuse Arabic and she draw back to her selections and her purchases (and very fine they seemed to be) The Arab lady appeared content and let out a little sigh as she retreated, that indicated she was happy to help. I, very pleased, made my small purchase of my lovely fragrant rose oil, it was parcelled beautifully in an outer bag, crisp with gold coloured handles and gilt lettering and we paid, said our Salem’s and made our way to depart..
Jo made his way towards the door to exit and I followed, passing by the lady and the servant girl, both with their eyes cast-down. As Jo passed, he thanked them but neither answered or raised their eyes, As I followed and passed by the lady, I again offered my thanks and much to my surprise and delight she gently reached out her lovely hand to mine and held it, then lifted her full Burkah and bowing her head she kissed my hand and whispered, and at the same time looking directly into my eyes, she spoke quietly and gently, nodding her head and not taking her eyes from mine, as the words were said – and in any language meant – “all that was needed was a woman to take care of it”
She studied my face for a while, taking her time and smiled, her beautiful dark kohl eyes and abundant lashes, looked directly into mine and again lifting her veil she kissed my hand, holding it gently for a time, then replaced her veil over her burkah and covered her face. I was so humbled and as I exited the shop, my eyes were brimming over with tears, how this woman had touch my heart, how this woman had reached my soul and even writing this now I know I can never do this experience justice with my words, but my heart was so full of tenderness for the reaching out of this hand of friendship.
This hand of friendship, that if we could all manage, men and woman alike, then where would the world problems be? How then could this world full of hate and bitterness continue?
Jo looked at me and having seen the whole interchange, I stepped out into the fierce heat to join him, to the sound of his deep intake of breath…