A Middle East Memoir

Today’s contributor is Nancy T. Wall, a mother, entrepreneur and author of Pulled by the Heart, which tells the true story of her experiences during ten years living in the Middle East, and then escaping with her two children.  Before you say “Yeah, I saw that movie”, take note: Nancy’s story is not the one Sally Field portrayed on the big screen.  Nancy’s is a love affair – with her Syrian-born husband, with the Arabic language and Muslim culture, and with the Middle East itself.  Read on, as Nancy tells it in her own words.


My story is a wonderful adventure and a magnificent love story of a young woman from Neenah, Wisconsin who gets to live a very big life.  I took a leap of faith to travel to a third world country for someone I loved.  Some would say I was so adventurous!  But when we are young, it doesn’t always seem that way.  The world is open to us… and fear is masked by our eagerness to learn and our capacity for adventure.  That’s how it was for me.

I left Neenah after high school to go to the “big city” of Milwaukee when I was 18 to attend Prospect Hall, an all-girls school.  I met a handsome man from Beirut, Lebanon attending the Milwaukee School of Engineering, and I fell in love.  It was complicated, as his parents were not going to allow their son to get involved with an American common girl (much less a non-Muslim) so they took him back to Lebanon after graduation.  But somehow, they were unsuccessful in getting him to forget about me, and five years after we met, he came back to the U.S. and asked me to marry him.

So there I was, engaged to an Arab, whom my parents liked very much.  They knew I would leave and they knew I would become a Muslim in order to marry him, as Lebanon did not allow mixed marriages between religions.  I was raised Roman Catholic, but they supported me in my decision.  They let me do what I needed to do.  I think they knew I would do it anyway.  And I guess they figured I would not change who I was.  They had given me a very solid foundation.

Beirut, Lebanon

When the time came for me to leave, I flew out of Outagamie Airport (Wisconsin) and landed in Beirut, Lebanon – only to find that the runway was being bombed! This was the beginning of the 1975 Civil War in Beirut, and the beginning of my incredible journey.

I knew that adapting to the culture and customs was critical if I was to grow, thrive and be happy in my new home, and learning the language was paramount to being accepted.  So I embraced the Muslim culture immediately.  Flats in Beirut were very expensive, so Maher and I started off living with his family.  This gave me an opportunity to observe and learn about Muslim life close up, and to begin avidly learning the Arabic language.

Maher’s parents, M’Nouman and Abu Nouman and their maid, M’Saad, welcomed me into their home from the day I arrived, introducing me to their culture and habits and helping me to become familiar with my new world.  From them, I learned the exquisite traditions of the Arab world, and the warmth of “Ahalan wa sahlan”, welcoming people to your home.  I had never seen such friendliness and warmth – men holding hands with other men and women holding hands with other women – just because they were friends.

I was also thrilled to discover the richness of Beirut.  At that time, Beirut was known as the “Paris of the Middle East” – for its culture, but in particular for its food, and the care that went into the preparation of that food.  The shopping of fruits and vegetables was a serious, almost exalted activity; and the cooking and eating was equally so.

But Beirut was also a battleground at that time.  There was often bombing or fighting in the streets.  I had many harrowing experiences during this period of time, including diving to the floor in our home as a sniper aimed through a kitchen window.  Amidst this chaos, Maher and his family tried to carry on as normally as possible, so I did the same.

In between the bombings and gunfire, I was able to marry the man I loved in Beirut in that summer of 1975.  On the morning of my wedding day, Maher’s mother sat beside me on my bed and welcomed me as her third daughter.  It was a simple ceremony in the living room of my in-laws’ house, presided over by a Sheik, in the presence of my husband’s family and two witnesses.  I wore a blue silk dress and carried a red rose.

At first, I was disappointed that the ceremony was so informal – no white wedding dress – and no women allowed except for Maher’s immediate family.  But I loved my husband.  I had received only warmth and support from his family.  And I was determined to learn and accept the customs of the Muslim faith.  The day, it turned out, was as lovely as I could have hoped.

It was also an opportunity for me to understand a bit more of the traditional marriage relationship.  The Sheik that day explained to me – translated by one of our witnesses – that in the Muslim faith, the husband is entirely responsible for the wife, and she is not required to do anything to earn money.  A symbolic gift (usually money) is made to the bride both at the time of the wedding and shortly after, to provide for her in the event of divorce, since no money will be given to her at that time.  I was asked how much I wanted, and could in fact have asked for any amount.  What I asked for was 10 pounds sterling, about $15.00.  As the gift was symbolic and I was a modern woman, I did not see the need for more than that.  Besides, I did not intend to divorce.

United Arab Emirates

By the end of the year, Beirut had become increasingly dangerous, to the point that we had to leave.  Our lives together took a detour when a welcome miracle happened.  Maher’s company offered him a posting in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and we jumped at the opportunity to move to a safer environment and a different culture.  UAE became our home until 1985.

The difference between Beirut and the UAE was stark.  Whereas I had known a lot about Beirut before leaving the U.S., I knew nothing at all about this desert country.  It was the home of Bedouins and 99% Muslim, and was very strict in its religious observance.

But it was safe.  Once again in a new part of the world, in the city of Sharjah (and later Abu Dhabi), I needed to establish to everyone that I was going to stay and be a part of their country – I was not just a visitor or a foreigner.

Although my husband was an Arab, we were both pioneers, since the UAE was in its infancy in development – no roads yet (camels and Bedouins walked down the center of the main street), buildings were just going up, electricity just coming to the city as well as running water.  I had long hair but learned to take a shower in less than 3 minutes, as I knew I’d be out of water after that.  These were not easy times, as the UAE is an extremely hot and humid country with temperatures in excess of 120 degrees.

Establishing myself in the UAE meant going on my own to the “souk” or marketplace.  It meant trying out my Arabic and bargaining with the locals.  I still remember taking a deep breath the first time I approached the souk.  Remember, I stuck out like a sore thumb – there are no naturally blonde Arabs!

But the souk was delicious, a feast of colors and smells which I devoured before getting down to business – with a big smile, of course.  The merchants waited for me to start – and I bargained like my life depended on it!  They were delighted, and it was an immeasurable triumph for me.  I savored it.  It was my true beginning in that country.

That same day, on my right, two British ladies who didn’t speak Arabic were paying ridiculous prices for their fruit.  I looked at my vendor, and he smiled a mischievous smile.  I smiled back at him and didn’t say a word.  In the end, I became the darling of the vendors, and earned the nickname of “nos ou nos” – half and half.  It was a great compliment.

Although these early years in the Middle East were certainly challenging, they were also an exciting adventure for me.  I was fascinated by the cultures and traditions, and thrilled by all that I was learning.

Leaving the Middle East

Sadly, however, there came a time when my circumstances became less enchanting.  After two children – a boy and a girl – and several years together with Maher, my marriage was no longer a good one, and my husband no longer recognizable as the man I had married.  He had changed, adopting a repressive version of the Muslim culture, instead of the beautiful one I loved.

And I changed too.  How could I not?  I was no longer adapting to my adopted country.  Everything was harsh – harsh, where before it been a pleasure for me to acclimate.

I was in a country where women had no rights, a third world country where anything I said was disregarded without a thought.  I was in a country where women disappeared in the desert never to be heard from again.

My life was in imminent danger.  I was no longer permitted to come and go as I pleased, and had to be escorted everywhere.  I now had to cover my legs, and be different in ways I never had to be before.  I was a prisoner in my home and my husband became abusive when I did not adhere to his wishes.  I knew that I could not survive another episode.

And the American Embassy would not help me.

I had to make a decision.  Should I give up and live this way?  If I did, what would it mean to raise a daughter in that country?  What would it mean to raise a son in that way?

And if I decided to do something, how would I do it?  Making a decision is one thing, figuring out how to do it is another.

My answer came from within.  I had to draw from myself.  I had to dig deep and believe I had the answer.

From that moment on, everything I did had a purpose and a reason.  I got out of bed in the morning with a purpose; I got out of bed in the morning because I believed in myself; I got out of bed in the morning because it felt right in my gut.  It was inside of me and I had to work it outward to everything I did in order to escape with my children, as I was not going to leave without them.

So I planned my escape.

I knew I had to leave when my husband was on a trip and actually on a plane in the air where he could not check on me.  He had eyes and ears on me during the day.  So it would have to be in the dead of the night.

But before any of this could happen, I also had to be a very good actress.  He had to trust me enough to travel again.  He believed I would try to flee to the U.S.  He said we would never let me return there – ever.

So I became very obedient.  It pleased him and I could see a change in him.  I started receiving my dozen roses every week like before.  I never contested him and always did as I was told.  He would test me with his words, and I would never react.  I became completely subservient.  I prepared for the flight, so that when the time came, I would be prepared to leave.

There was one false trip that he planned and I passed that test.  It didn’t feel right – my gut told me he was lying.  I couldn’t afford to make a mistake because if I did, I might never get another chance.

Shortly after that, the time did come again for another trip.  He was leaving for India – he gave me just a few hours notice.  I felt it was right.  I had everything in place – except one thing.  I still had to get our original passports.  They were in the safe in my husband’s office.  Imagine everything in place but no passports.

I had a plan.  And that part of the plan didn’t work.  I was in front of the safe in the middle of the night, with the taxi outside waiting for me and my children. And I couldn’t open the safe.

Then I looked at my 5-year-old son, Manar.  I had many times seen him replicate things that he had watched others do only once before.  I asked him if he had ever seen his father open the safe.

He said, “Sure Mom.”  He spun the two large dials.  It clicked and he stepped aside to let me pull open the heavy door.  There, on top of a mound of cash, both dirhams and dollars, were our three passports.  Carefully, without touching a dirham or dollar, I took out our passports as if they were solid gold.

There were four checkpoints I had to get through in order to get to my plane in Abu Dhabi.  I used my Arabic and my charm as a young, blonde, American woman to get through them.  There is no way I should have been able to do that since I was supposed to be accompanied by a male family member.

Once on the plane, I got through to the pilots to explain the danger of my situation, and to ask for their help.  Our flight went through London to Chicago and then Outagamie Airport in Wisconsin.  My greatest fear was that my husband would find out that I was gone and search for me in London and if not there, then Chicago, and take us back.

In Chicago, the police escorted us personally to our plane for departure to Outagamie Airport.  My family had arranged for this, unbeknownst to me.  When we arrived in Wisconsin, my entire immediate family was there.  Even as I deplaned with Nadine and Manar, I was searching to make sure there was no private plane ready to whisk us away.

As far as I know, I’m the only woman to make it out of the Middle East with her children without professional help.  It was November 16, 1985 and there was a slight smattering of snow on the ground.  A moment I will never forget.

I believe anyone over the age of 40 understands that life does not always end up the way we thought it would.  But that doesn’t negate all the good that happened along the way.  My ten years in the Middle East were rich in experience and learning.  I loved living there.  Believe me when I say that I am still pulled by the heart to the country that I loved and learned so much from.  But it was time for me to leave.

Since coming back to the U.S., I have shared many happy stories about that time with my children, who encouraged me to write them down so that they would not be lost or forgotten.  I have finally done that, in my book Pulled by the Heart.  It began as a labor of love, for my children, to recount to them a piece of their own history.  But it turned into an educational tool, a means of sharing with others my experience of the Muslim culture, and what it was like for an American woman to live in the midst of it for ten years.

When I began giving lectures and attending book signings, one of the first questions I was ever asked was, “I have not yet read your book.  What is it that I will find most surprising?”  My answer: “How much I loved it.”

I learned a lot about myself when I had to follow through on the decision to leave my husband and the Middle East.  I learned that you absolutely can do what needs to be done to make your life and your relationships healthy and whole, in spite of the obstacles stacked against you.  You will know that it is right by the feel of it – that sense of something good and respectful that comes from following your true self.

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