Monday, April 20, 2009

My Visit to Al Wajbah

This was one of the first things I spied upon entering Al Wajbah Elementary School and it tickled me to no end because I've seen similar signs in elementary schools I've visited all over the United States. I learned from the very energetic English teacher, Sara, and the school's librarian, Gadda, that this is the first year the school has had Drop Everything and Read. In fact, my visit was part of an entire week's focus on reading. Yesterday, the 4th graders read to their buddies in 1st grade, sharing titles including Scruffy Sheep and Mr. Gumpy's Outing. Tomorrow, moms will be coming in to read to groups of students and on Thursday the girls will dress up as their favorite fictional characters (a random survey revealed that the day will be heavy on Cinderellas!).

I would like teachers in the states to please take note of the proper way to treat a visiting author: shortly after I arrived, I was ushered into a meeting room where I met the intense and gracious principal, and served Qatari coffee (deliciously flavored with cardomom and served in exquisitely delicate handle-less glass demitasse cups) and muffins. I could get used to such royal treatment!
The meeting room
After this visit and a tour of the school, I was escorted to the library where I waited until I was called for my presentation. I wasn't even allowed to lift a finger to load up my powerpoint presentation!

The girls came in three groups, according to grade level. I met with about 300 girls in all, and I wanted to adopt each and every one of them. They treated me like a rock star, nearly turning inside out when I called on them to ask their questions. Despite the language differences, I could tell they got most of what I was saying. Sara suggested I read each group the Two Bobbies and, when she quizzed them afterward on what they'd heard, they could answer all of her tough questions. They had really been listening!

After the three presentations, we adjourned once again to the meeting room where a sumptuous array of food was waiting, including an amazing fruit "bouquet." Three girls from each of the grades I'd spoken to came in and we all chatted (well, the teachers and I did most of the talking as the girls are awfully shy) as we enjoyed refreshing fresh juice drinks and falafel and treats whose names I didn't catch. One earnest young woman named Sara, from Egypt, warmed up to me and began to pepper me with questions, starting each one with "Teacher." It seems she, too, wants to be a writer and from her intent expression and her thoughtful questions, I have every confidence she will be.
A lovely repast after my presentations

As we left, the girls went to wash up for the midday prayer. I could see them filling up the gymnasium, dressed in their pink shailas (headcoverings) and some in black abiyahs (robes). I wish I could show you photos of these beautiful young girls, beautiful in appearance, certainly, but glowing with a deeper beauty, too.

There were so many things about this visit that was different from all the other school visits I've ever done -- I've never been to the Middle East, never been in a Muslim school, and their names -- Noora and Maryam and Lulwa -- were not names I had ever inscribed in books before. Yet these differences dissolved the minute we began telling each other our stories, even though I only heard tiny snippets of theirs. I am so thankful I had the opportunity to spend the day with them. It was a true privilege and I only hope my visit (which was courtesy of the Qatar Reading Association) will encourage them to read, to write and to dream as big as Hattie's big sky.

It was hard to leave but Anita (who had escorted me) and I were to meet up with Neil and with Hope, who had played tour guide to Neil all morning. We met up at Al Majelis Restaurant where I got to have another glass of that fabulous lemon mint drink, then Hope drove Neil and I to the Qatar Museum of Islamic Arts.

The building was designed by I.M. Pei and is stunning upon approach and contains objects even more stunning inside. We saw paper thin glass bottles -- from the 13th century! -- exquisitely illustrated pages from the Q'ran, fabulously intricate carved wooden door panels, woven rugs the length of at least 2 Cadillacs and, my favorite, stunning jewelry. I was particularly taken with the emeralds (one inscribed with several lines of text) and the Pearl of Ahkban.

Ready for an afternoon pick me up, we headed downtown and ended up at the Four Seasons for coffees.
Neil and Hope

We gave Hope some time off for good behavior, parting company around 4. Promptly at 6:30, she returned and we headed back downtown (her third trip with some combination of Larsons in tow today) to the Old Souq. Mario Andretti could take a few lessons from Hope -- we watched in admiration as she skillfully navigated the ubiquitous white Land Cruisers driven by Qataris with heavy feet. (Several people have told us that Qatar has the highest auto accident rate per capita in the world.)

The Souq was bustling with life on this pleasant evening, proving for great people watching. I was a bit overwhelmed by everything, but did do some shopping. When I made my purchases, the very sweet shopkeeper threw in a set of prayer beads, just because. Hope, Neil and I dined at a Morrocan restaurant, surrounded by folks puffing on "hubbly-bubblies," though we all abstained. When we left, however, I felt as if I'd inhaled a few puffs myself, thanks to all the imbibing patrons!

We did get to hear two calls to prayer today -- one at sunset and one later. It was haunting and lovely. Hope told me what the call said but I'm too tired to recall the words. I'll get them again and let you know!

Till tomorrow!


  1. You deserve the royal treatment, Kirby. Relish every minute of it! The trip sounds like it's going so well. Thanks for all the updates and pics! XO