My New Years present
In Russian culture, New Years is the most important holiday of the year. Since Qataris don’t celebrate New Years as a holiday, I worked on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The champagne at the hotel was way to expensive, so I didn’t have a requisite glass of bubbly for the holiday. I got a much bigger and unexpected present instead.
On New Years Day, two hip teenage boys dressed in jeans and t-shirts wandered into the American section of the Doha International Book Fair asking about the new Eminem book just released in the US. I told them that we didn’t have it and mentioned something about my own books and pointed out my “I am the author sign” (in English and Arabic). They looked at the books and walked away.
About 10 minutes later, the Eminem book seekers came back and one of them told me that the other kid didn’t believe that I had written the books myself. (I think I look too young to be a serious author.) I offered to show them my passport to prove that I was indeed Susanna Zaraysky. They laughed and asked me to tell them about my books. Sultan, the Jordanian Palestinian Eminem book seeker told me that he totally understood the premise of my language book as he had learned English via American movies and music. He also shocked me by telling me about his haram (forbidden) activities involving women and alcohol.
Meanwhile, women covered from head to foot in black abayas (full length robes), covering their face and sometimes even their eyes, were walking by. This 16 year old is telling me about drinking on New Year’s eve and public displays of affection while women walk by in Islamic fashion. The Emir’s second wife, Sheikha Mouza, famous in Qatar for appearing in public, showing her face and encouraging women to study and work, was walking by in the nearby aisle, followed by an entourage of onlookers.
They continued to ask me questions about the US, the American perception of Arabs and other cultural and personal questions. They were really intrigued by me and my story and wanted to know more about how I traveled and learned languages. Mahmoud, the Egyptian Palestinian kid asked me what I thought of Jewish people. I told him that I was Jewish. He seemed quite surprised and continued to talk to me and ask me about my opinion on the situation in the Gaza Strip. I told him about my trip to the refugee camps in Gaza and my opinion on the current crisis. I didn’t want to talk about politics, but the subject came up and I told him my truth. Then, their other friends came by and took pictures with me. One of their Qatari schoolmates, was very obviously gay, and I was quite surprised at how openly he talked about being gay and how much he liked Britney Spears.
They all seemed quite amazed by my books and wanted to talk to me. After five or ten minutes, they left to go girl watching or book shopping. I thought I might have scared Mahmoud about my ethnic origins, but to my surprise, he came back again with Sultan.
“We are so happy to have met you. Really, we want you to come to our school. We are really amazed by you and your life. You inspired us to learn languages. We want to come back here this weekend with our parents and see you again,” they said.
I was touched and told them I would be at the show all weekend.
Saturday, Mahmoud came with this Mauritanian friend just to buy my books and talk with me again. I was quite impressed that they made the long 70km trip by taxi from the town of Al Khor just to talk to me. He told his classmates about me and was really happy to meet someone so different and inspiring. Wow! I had a teenage male fan club! (Why didn’t I have such a fan club when I was a teenager?) I gave them both of my books for 20 QR (about $5.50), a major discount from the regular price of 100QR ($30) for two books!
About an hour later, another one of their classmates, Mohammed, came by and said that he heard about me on the school bus ride on Thursday when Sultan and Mahmoud where talking about me to their friends. Mohammed, a Palestinian Jordanian, needed to learn German in one year so he could go study in Germany and was asking me how to do it. I let him copy down website addresses from my books for resources. His friend just looked at me in disbelief and remained quiet.
I was quite touched that these guys came just to see me, but the story gets even better.
On Monday, Mahmoud called me to tell me he wanted to meet with me before I left so he could give me a CD of a presentation he made about my language book for his school. I was shocked since I had only sold him the book on Saturday. Already by Monday, he had read the whole book and spent five to seven hours preparing a presentation about it for his English class. I told him he could email it to me, but he insisted of meeting me in person to give me the CD and making another long trip to Doha to meet me. He asked his school director if I could come to give a presentation to his school, but the director thought that a non-Muslim 31 year old woman could be a bad influence on the kids or distract them:) Mahmoud even told his school director that I would wear a hijab (head scarf covering my hair) or abaya when giving the presentation. (I don’t own a hijab, but could improvise with a scarf. Now, the abaya I would have to purchase for such an occasion:)) Still, the director said no. Mahmoud even lied about my religion and told the director I was a Christian.
There were three adults who wanted to meet with me before I left, but I said no to them since I wanted some time to myself. But, I couldn’t say no to a kid.
Mahmoud asked his dad to drive him to Doha so he could meet with his ex-girlfriend. He couldn’t tell his dad that he was meeting a 31yr old Jewish author and substitute teacher, as that would be too haram (forbidden). (Let’s not mention that I drink and do other things not allowed by the Koran.) He met me at City Center with his other Egyptian friend and told me that bringing me the CD was just an excuse to meet with me again and learn about another perspective of the world. I am probably the only Western woman he has ever spoken to so openly and most likely the first Jew he has ever met. I realized how vital it is to these kids to have contact with the outside world and meet someone who has lived abroad and traveled in uncommon places. They felt kind of trapped in their small city life in Al Khor and were super eager to learn about other countries and languages.
I was honored that Mahmoud made such an effort to get me to his school and see me again. I gave him a free copy of the language book to pass on to Mohammed, the boy who wanted to learn German super fast.
Authors don’t always get to meet their public. Rarely do they meet someone who has read one of their books in two hours and immediately made a presentation about how to learn foreign languages and why it’s important to be multilingual to be delivered on the following day.
Even if I hadn’t sold 60 books, been paid for my panel discussion speech on US-Arab cultural interactions, and received a publishing offer from the Ministry of Culture of Qatar, Monday’s meeting with Mahmoud would have made the trip a success. I know I’ve changed his life and those of his friends. I hope their classmates will borrow my books and learn how to improve their foreign language skills with music. My goal is to create global citizens and this was the best surprise New Year’s present I have ever had. I can drink a glass of champagne some other time, but touching someone’s life so profoundly is priceless.