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Travel Logs January 2017

Dubai Desert Wish

By Elayne Clift

We arrive at the desert and Qaddafi dutifully starts our high speed, terrifying sand dune dips and swerves. We beg him to stop but he thinks we are having fun. When we convince him we really want to forfeit this part of the trip, he relents and takes us to the campsite, where we forgo camels and henna and are seated on carpets for dinner under the stars.

Against my better judgement I await the driver who will take me from the lobby of my hotel to an evening in the desert near Dubai, city of concrete, chrome and glass. I know that I’ve signed on for a typical tourist excursion that includes racing over sand dunes in a specially designed vehicle, riding a camel and getting your hands decorated with henna if you so wish. But I have only one layover day in Dubai and I figure that dinner in the desert under the stars is worth the cost of the trip.

The driver, who bears a striking resemblance to a young version of Libya’s late dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, greets me wearing a men’s traditional long white robe known as a dish-dash and a headscarf, or keffiyeh, held in place by a braided red cloth encircling his head. We are joined by a French woman and her young son and a young woman from South Africa, who climb into the back seat leaving me to ride shotgun with Qaddafi.

This is fortuitous because I get to talk to him like the feminist and journalist that I am. I ask him questions about the landscape as we set out on our one-hour journey and about his country’s culture. As he relaxes into the conversation, which my companions seem to be enjoying, I tell him laughingly who he reminds me of. He thinks it’s funny too. Then I ask about his family.

His wife, he tells us, was killed in a car crash, leaving him with three children, one of whom is a little girl. They all live with his parents now. It’s a tragic story that makes me sad. I ask about her, and about their life together in such a conservative culture. Was yours an arranged marriage? I ask. Of course. Did she wear an abaya and hijab? Of course. Was she permitted to go out by herself? Not necessary. Did he think she would have liked more independence? No.

I take a risk and deepen the conversation. Qaddafi, I realize, thinks I’m crazy the more we talk, but to his credit, he continues engaging with me. “Do you think your wife, and other women like her, ever long for more in life than simply being their husband’s cook, maid, laundress, sexual vessel, mother of their children?” I explain to him that I’ve just come from Somaliland where women are chattel. They have no voice, no right to their own bodies, no personal possessions, no way to be people; they are simply property, deprived of everything but survival, if they’re lucky.

No,” he says, adding, “She got to sit in the front of the car, just like you.”

I can’t stop thinking about his wife. I wonder what she might have been like if she’d been born somewhere else. I wonder if she and I could have talked honestly if we’d ever met.

I explain to Qaddafi that in my country, his wife might be called a victim of her culture. “Maybe you’re a victim too,” I suggest. “Maybe you would have been enriched if she’d had more freedom to be who she was in her heart.” He looks at me like I’m nuts.

We arrive at the desert and Qaddafi dutifully starts our high speed, terrifying sand dune dips and swerves. We beg him to stop but he thinks we are having fun. When we convince him we really want to forfeit this part of the trip, he relents and takes us to the campsite, where we forgo camels and henna and are seated on carpets for dinner under the stars.

On the trip back to the city, I notice that Qaddafi has removed his keffiyah, relieved, it seems to me, that he can drop the facade that is part of a job he wishes he didn’t have to do. This time I ask about his daughter.

She is eight years old and completely enveloped in the traditional life they lead. “What do you think she would like to be when she grows up if she could choose?” I ask. Qaddafi looks at me like I’m totally ridiculous. “What if she could go to school, maybe become a teacher or a nurse, or even a doctor?” I continue. “Think about it. She’s probably full of life. Don’t you want her to be all that she dreams of?”

For some reason I feel a fierce attachment to this unseen child. I care about her, just as I feel sad for her mother, and all the other females like them. I think Qaddafi is probably a good man in a bad culture. I really want to reach him.

“Listen,” I say. I tell him about the work that I do to help make the lives of women and girls better. I explain western ideas about human rights, women’s rights, freedom and autonomy. I talk about living the fullest life possible as God’s gift and blessing. I can’t be sure but maybe, just maybe, I’ve planted a seed…. “I’m telling you,” I smile. “I’m going to be on your shoulder as that little girl grows up! I’m going to keep whispering in your ear about her. I won’t go away so watch out! I’m always going to be there for her!”

When he drops us off at the hotel, Qaddafi smiles at me. I extend my hand and he actually shakes it. I am glad I have gone to the desert in a dune buggy. It’s an experience I don’t forget. Perhaps Qaddafi remembers it too.

It is four years now since I was in Dubai. I still think about that little girl and I still whisper in Qaddafi’s ear. I like to think he hears me as he watches his daughter dance to her dreams. I like to imagine that he takes joy in seeing the young woman she is becoming. It’s a long shot, I know, but hey, a girl can dream at any age, can’t she?   

 

Elayne Clift is a writer, workshop leader and lecturer. She has worked and taught internationally with a focus on women’s health and rights. (www.elayne-clift.com)

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