1986 is a year of great significance to me. It was the year when I started a new life in a new city Dubai, away from my war torn country Lebanon. It was the year when it became possible for me to dream again, to have a goal in my life. It was the year when my career started as a teacher. It was also the year when the Oprah Show started and I watched her, along with Phil Donahue and Sally Jesse Raphael. For me when I had spent most of my nights reading under candlelight in Beirut during the war, this was more than a blessing.
In Sept 1986 I started teaching mathematics to high school students in an international school in the emirate of Sharjah, not far from my home in Dubai. I had the most cosmopolitan classroom at the time. In one class I had more than thirteen different nationalities. Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans, local Arabs from UAE, from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Jordan, Portuguese, Hungarians, Russians, Germans, British, Irish, South African and many more. My classes were so rich with these cultural diversities that I felt so blessed. I had such interesting talks and discussions with my students. There was this pretty girl from India, Malika, with large and beautiful black eyes and long shiny black hair that reached to her knees. She was not only top of her class in mathematics, she also had this exceptional voice and when she sang it was like pure magic. She told me stories about India, about dowries and poverty and traditions that I would not have known otherwise. She told me that she didn’t know her grandparents from her father’s side. She said when her older sister was born her grandmother stopped talking to her mother. And a year later when she was born her father decided to leave India and make Dubai home for his family. I knew girls were not favored in the Middle East but I didn’t think that it was worse in some parts of India too. Now that she lived in Dubai she was free to pursue her dreams. She said she loved the arts. She wanted to sing and dance and act and be on the Oprah show one day. “Miss, will you come and watch me on Oprah?” She would ask. “Definitely!” I would reply. Over the years I met others like her. Among them were Farah, Noor, Tamara, Farnaz, Alia, Namitha, Shabnam, Sara and many more who all wanted to become so famous and appear on the Oprah show or be like Oprah. And they all made me promise to be there to watch.
In 1993 I enrolled in a writing workshop at the Dubai Art centre. We were ten ladies who met every evening for two weeks. We attended lectures on how to write and we wrote. After the workshop was over we formed the first writer’s circle in Dubai and even published our work in a magazine we called Writers Unlimited. And like my classrooms in the school the members in our group came from different backgrounds and cultures. One particular woman from the States, Val, promised us she would write a book soon and would appear on Oprah one day. So Oprah became part of our daily discussions and dreams.
Years went by and then 9/11 happened. We became sort of isolated from the rest of the world. The brown manila envelopes that enclosed students’ applications to different Universities in the States and Australia returned unopened, through no fault of their own. That’s when being from the Middle East became a problem. After that when my students asked me about my promise to be with them on Oprah I said wait until I leave the Middle East.
In Montreal it was the same story with my teenage students. Specially Sophie, who met me outside class every day to talk about Oprah. She too made me promise that one day when she was famous and on Oprah I would be there among the audience.
Sadly last week, Oprah said goodbye. As I watched her final show I thought of all those girls that I have met and taught over the years. So Malika, Laila, Namitha, Val, Tamara, Farah, Shabnam, Reem, Farnaz, and Sophie, our rendezvous with Oprah is still on. Knowing Oprah this is just the beginning and not the end. Who knows what Oprah will do next. Since she does not follow where the road leads but goes instead where there is no path and leaves a trail.
God bless you Oprah for who you are, for all you have given to us and specially for igniting that spark in the eyes and hearts of those teenage girls as far away as India, the Middle East and the Arabian gulf.