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How Being Raised as a Steel Magnolia Helped Me Cope with Having an Autistic Child in the Arab World

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Being raised in the South gave me the coping methods I needed to get through it all.

Written by Dedra L. Stevenson, author of Desert Magnolia, http://www.bluejinnimedia.com

For the last 27 years, I’ve lived in the United Arab Emirates.  I dress, speak and live as the people here, and I consider the UAE to be my country.  I love this place, and I’m very happy to be a part of making it a better place by raising good kids, writing books, and hopefully, making life a little easier for my Autistic son.

There are other American women here who have opted to marry into this culture, embrace the religion, and help to contribute to the country in many amazing ways, but I am one of the few that are from the South, and the ONLY one from Alabama.

I was raised by a Steel Magnolia, and for those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a prim and proper Southern lady that is tough as nails despite her dainty and elegant appearance.  For those of you who’ve seen Gone with the Wind, you already know the prototype for the Steel Magnolia, Scarlett O’Hara.

Despite the odds against her, Scarlett managed to take care of her family, survive the war, and even manage to thrive under conditions that would have broken the average woman, and she did it all with a smile and a corset! She always looked “just so”, no matter what was going on, even an attack by the Yankees.

I was fortunate enough to be raised like this, and I’m proud to say that I too, have been through traumatic experiences that would have destroyed the average person, but managed to survive and “thrive” under the most dire of circumstances.  I am very proud to be a Steel Magnolia, and now that I’m a part of a Middle Eastern culture, I’m proud to be the world’s first Desert Magnolia.

My son Ibrahim suffers from Autism, and in spite of having a limited offering of services available to us at the time, we have managed to raise a very sweet and loving young man, and now he’s all set to be the “poster child” for home schooling adults with Autism in the UAE.  When my short documentary, LEMONADE, releases, Ibrahim will be the subject of a great deal of discussion, and hopefully, he will provide hope for others who are in his situation.

It’s been a rough go, and that’s a fact.  I remember times that I was ready to give up, especially when his attacks first started.  Getting him on the right medication was undoubtedly the biggest part of the puzzle that we had to piece together, and thanks to God Almighty, we have found assistance when we’ve needed it the most.

But getting Ibrahim to where he is now has been more than just adjusting his medication and his diet.  We are emotional beings at the end of the day as well, and I truly believe that the compassion and family closeness that I was raised with helped me to make sure that Ibrahim received the devotion that he needed to thrive as well.

We have found amazing carers for him, and designed a wonderful home school program with a variety of activities that keep him engaged and fulfilled each and every day, and seeing this makes me incredibly proud.  Just like Scarlett, when I see the family that I’ve built, it makes me so proud and happy.  Finally, I have grown into the Matriarch that I was born to be.

 

The Arabic Granny and the Southern Granny…

dreamstime_s_30221865 The Southern granny has long been known in the media as being a sweet little “Paula Dean” type of character, humming a little tune to herself as she cooks fried chicken with a side of deep fried pickle slices whilst sporting a little apron with images of chickens or a funny little slogan on the front. When you walk into her kitchen, you can smell the cornbread being baked and with a big welcoming smile, she’ll offer you a big glass of sweet iced tea before you’ve had a chance to sit down.

Once you’ve finished eating, she won’t let you get up without a slice of one of her pies that she has undoubtedly prepared ahead of time for your arrival. Overall, you’ll feel very well taken care of, and she won’t let you wash a dish or do a thing. She’ll take care of all of it for you.

I had a granny like that back in Alabama, and my dear God, how I miss her everyday.  In fact, Christmas time is a very sad time for me because not only was her birthday Xmas, she died around this time of the year as well, so it always leaves me with a hole in my heart where someone used to be.  If you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting one or being cared for by one, consider yourself very very lucky indeed.

dreamstime_s_10249187  As unique as my grandmother was, I did have the pleasure of being cared for by another, although, as I was her daughter in law, she expected me to help.

The Arabic granny greets her grandchildren in much the same way as a Southern grandma would.  She also has a big meal prepared, but the chicken will be part of a dish known as Byriani, so it’s cooked in a pot with rice, onions and fried carrots. Just like the Southern granny, the Arabic granny has a lot of sweet treats and home made bread for her family as well.  She even hums, but it’s not a bouncy little tune like the Southern granny, but a more somber tune.  dreamstime_xs_59217333

Everything for the Arabic granny is a bit on the dramatic side, although you should NEVER say this to her out loud, as it may get you a serious reprimand by the entire family, much in the same way a Southern family would react if their granny was questioned in any way.

Disrespecting her or refusing her food is not allowed by anyone who considers himself or herself to be a lady or a gentleman, and if you dare to cross the line, the men of the family will undoubtedly rise up to defend her, as she is sacred to them.

For a great story with a LOT more to tell you about the high position of the family matriarch in both cultures, why not pick up a copy of Desert Magnolia on http://www.bluejinnimedia.com today?

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The Arab Family/The Southern Family

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Writing Desert Magnolia brought up a lot of interesting ideas that had been spinning in my head for a long time.  We have so many family stories that only serve to demonstrate how alike we really are.

It’s incredibly strange that each and every time I mention this to a person from either culture, they look at me like I’m nuts! I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again though.  The deep South has a LOT in common with an Arab family.  There’s a reason that I feel so at home here. 🙂

First of all, hospitality is critical here. Hospitality and generosity. When someone comes to see you, you MUST take care of them in every way. They must have comfortable accommodations, someone to guide them around, and a generous supply of the best cuisine you can offer.   It’s your duty as a lady or a gentleman.  A stingy or selfish person is shunned and avoided. Now, I ask you…am I referring to an Arab family or a Southern family?  Impossible to tell? I rest my case. 🙂

Let’s try another one, shall we? The family is everything, and if someone from your own family is threatened in any way, as a lady or a gentleman, you must defend their honor. Ok, am I referring to a Southern family or an Arab family?

I love many things about the families here, and again, they remind me so much of how families in my home state operate.  People are just plain kind to each other, and they have the best manners ever in most cases. Respect for one’s elders is the most remarkable of these characteristics.  Both Southern folks and Arabs feel that it’s almost unforgivably rude to curse or even raise your voice at your parents, your Aunts/Uncles, etc.

However, there’s always a down side, but interestingly enough, the downside is also similar in both cultures….Gossip, yes that’s what I’m referring to. Gossip and comparing oneself to the “Jones” home next door.  If your neighbor has a Mercedes, often times, many families feel completely empty until they get one as well. Of course, I’m certainly not referring to everyone.  Generally speaking, fake folks like that are not considered part of the “real” culture, but they do exist. The general consensus is that if you’re fake and shallow, you’re not liked very much.

So, if they have so much in common, why all the tension? On my next blog post, I will share some of the funniest tales of the dinner table from both regions for you. In the meantime, why not try Desert Magnolia, my crime drama, on http://www.bluejinnimedia.com?  It’s available as both an Ebook and a Paperback.

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A Southern Girl in the Middle East

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Image courtesy of Photokanok at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The internet made the world become smaller in many ways, but lately, it seems that the world has separated again.  Rather than becoming one human species, we seem to be holding even tighter to the “US vs. THEM” mentality.  Does that mean that we are in fact “devolving” rather than “evolving”?

I moved to the Middle East more than 25 years ago.  You may find this hard to believe, but I hadn’t even traveled internationally before. Americans may not be surprised to read that, as it’s not uncommon for many in the USA to never even apply for a passport.  In many cases, people feel that they just don’t need one.

I got one, however, and I used it.  I came to the United Arab Emirates when I was 24 years old, and I did it solely for love.

I knew my husband could never be away from his family for years at a time, as he was much closer to his family than I was to mine, so I agreed to come and live here.  I really felt that it was such an adventure I was going on…a new land…a new language….new customs.  I had butterflies, as somehow I always knew that I’d never live my entire life in Alabama.

The trip went well, especially considering that my husband and I were coming over with our 7 month old son.  I had been “briefed” by the Saudi Arabian women that I knew in Alabama on Arabic customs, and felt completely ready to meet his family.

When I actually reached the home of my mother-in-law, however, something happened that set the fear in motion.  I heard that big Arabic gate slam behind us.  At that moment, my heart fell into my stomach. My immediate thought at that point was, “Oh God, I’ve ruined my life!  How could I have done that?”

Thankfully, once I got past the initial shock, and I got a job, my own car, and a few friends, I felt much better!  It didn’t take long to figure out that people are basically the same wherever you go, and Arabs and Southern people have more in common than either group would ever imagine.  We sit in the kitchen drinking our iced tea, and they sit in the kitchen drinking their hot tea.  They want to be known for being the most generous people to all their friends and neighbors, and so do we.  They like big homes, big cars, and luxurious surroundings, and so do we.

Once I eased into seeing our similarities more than our differences, life got a whole lot sweeter!!! Just like a big glass of sweet tea? 🙂

If you’d like to read more on this, why not give Desert Magnolia a try?  Find it and all of my works on http://www.bluejinnimedia.com