I live in the Middle East


I live in the Middle East. I would not be exaggerating if I was to say there is a mosque at my back door, because, well, there’s a mosque at my back door.

I was born and raised in a small town called Renmark, it sits alongside the Murray River in the Riverland, South Australia. I believe it to be the most beautiful place on earth. Friends from other parts of the world who visited Renmark on the day my husband and I were married were welcomed with a hot north wind and 47 degree heat. They were not as enamoured with my hometown. When I’d described it as God’s country they were left to wonder exactly who my God was.

My little piece of Australia - Renmark. Where people get to look at this every day.

My friend Michael gets to wake up to this every day. Renmark.

There was no mosque at the back door in Renmark. Instead there was an afghan hound who lived in the house behind us with the local dress shop owner Mrs Summerfield. That hound was the most exotic looking thing I’d ever seen as a kid. With its long blonde mane that hung to the ground, it made our stray labrador cross look very ordinary. When the afghan disappeared one day I was told it had gone to live in the snow, (my parents obviously decided to switch up the old gone to the farm story). I’d never seen snow but I imagined Mrs Summerville’s afghan hound would have been the best looking dog there.

Living in the Middle East means that I am surrounded by religious and cultural symbols that tie in with the Islam faith. It’s not just the mosque, it’s the men in Thobes, the women in Abayas, the minarets that stand out above the rooftops as you drive across the overpass. It’s the conversations about who is doing Hajj this year and what people’s plans for the Eid Holidays are. And although Islam frames the landscape of my life, the brush strokes and the detail are pretty much the same picture I had in Australia. I go to swimming lessons and sign up for pilates. I volunteer at school. I walk the aisles of the grocery store. I unpack lunch boxes from backpacks. I pick up scrunched up pyjamas from the floor and stuff washing baskets with odd socks. I dine in restaurants with friends, barbecue in the backyard, look for cheap sauvignon blanc at the booze store, and download movies on my apple tv.

Each day I log in, click, search and read. Sometimes, recently more than ever, I hear people from my home country saying things about Islam and wonder how they became so fearful, so ignorant, so freaking embarrassing.

We’ve all experienced a cultural dress code; no shoes no entry, no denim in the casino, a jacket and tie required for a friends wedding. It’s the same here in Qatar, I cover my shoulders if I’m out and about but if I choose to visit a pool in a hotel I wear bathers while chatting to women who may choose to wear a burkini.

“How does it make you feel?” I asked a Qatari girlfriend when we first moved here.

We were standing poolside, me in bathers, her in an Abaya. She raised an eyebrow.

“How does it make you feel being surrounded by women in bathing suits?”

She smiled “You should be allowed to wear as much or as little as you like. I chose this, you chose that.” There was no hint of judgement.

My Mum always thought that Afghan hound would have been hot in our Renmark climate, I think that’s why they told me it went to the snow. Or maybe it really did? I’m not sure I’ve ever asked for the truth. I’d like to think it got to travel, to look out at something other than our backyard, if only for short time.

A different landscape, with the same brushstrokes.

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  1. Exactly. The things I have read online the past few weeks have made me so angry, frustrated and embarrassed. As I wrote in a post of mine recently, I feel very lucky at the moment that my kids get to grow up surrounded by beautiful women wearing abayas, shylas and niqabs and that they know they’re nothing to be fearful of, they’re just something their friends or their friends’ mums and aunts wear. People who they laugh and play with, share the day-to-day with, people who care about them too.

    PS: Eid Mubarak! Have a great long weekend.

  2. Yes to everything. But that photo, oh that photo. * cries *

    I’m a 20+ year expat in Canada and still miss it so much. The silhouette of the gum trees over pre-dawn sky, the early morning air with a tang of lemon (from the lemon gum I suppose) and the warble song of magpies. I used to call it the “curly song”. Can you feel it? And red dirt. Love me some red dirt. Even though I was a Perth girl through and through, still love red dirt. I have family connections in Renmark and Paringa and spend some summers there apricot picking. Did you ever swim at Lock 5? Best fun ever for a teenager away from home, summer and a bunch of hot young fruit picking guys. Going to have another cry now.

    Good news is, back to Perth for 4 weeks at Christmas. Yay. Bring on the magpies!

  3. Sharon Loper says

    So eloquently put. One of the coolest teachers at my school wears the full abaya and my favorite picture I have of her is when she was joining in a water fight with the kids on the last week of school. Drenched! She was INTO it with bells on! The laughter, the fun, the cheating and the competitive cheekiness was an absolute delight. Brings things back to basics in terms of human interaction really. My only question mark arises when I go to competitive track meets in support of my daughter and watch the 13 year old girl SWELTERING in the heat running fully covered in the 1500m……..just doesn’t seem healthy. …… Love the Afghan story.

  4. I’ve been equally shocked at the obvious hate the in media in the UK too, it all seems so narrow minded. Then I spoke to a few people who have been there more recently that me and things seem to have really deteriorated between muslims and non-muslims. It frightens me to think where this could lead.

  5. Hi Kirsty,

    A few genuine questions (pardon my ignorance): Do the women you meet in the grocery store, or wherever, wear burkas (with the face covered)? And if so, is it easy enough to strike up a conversation with them, even if you can’t see their faces?

    Also, if you meet with women in a social setting – restaurant, BBQ, etc – do they cover their faces? How do they eat?

    • I live in Dubai and I’ve never come across a woman wearing an Afghan-style burqa, so I can’t comment on that. Plenty of women do completely cover their face with a sheer piece of black chiffon or wear a niqab ( a veil worn across the nose, covering the lower half of the face so just the eyes are showing). In both cases, I’ve found it easy to chat with them in the supermarket aisle or in a lift. As for eating they just discreetly lift up and take a bite or sip their drinks.
      Once on a plane I was seated near an older Kuwaiti lady who wore a niqab, she was quite smitten with my young son (who was just under2 at the time) and kept offering to hold him while I’ll ate or attended to my other kids. She was worried that my son would be a little frightened by her niqab and not being able to see her face so she whipped off for 20 mins while holding him and then put it back on after.

  6. Jo Carroll says

    Islamophobia is growing here in the UK. And it’s bonkers – the extremists are no more Muslim than the Klu Klux Clan were Christian.

    • Jo, that is such a perfect line “the extremists are no more Muslim than the Klu Klux Clan were Christian”.

  7. Carolyn Alfonso says

    Love this, Kirsty! I too have found the discussions and comments that have been occurring totally embarrassing. As I heard in one discussion on Triple J Hack’s programme, this whole idea of banning the burqa runs so much deeper than a perceived security threat and is about a true mistrust and misunderstanding of the Muslim faith and a hope that we can “wipe out” that which we are so unsure about.

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