For twelve years now we have lived in Arab countries, far away from our home area in the United States. While we might have felt isolated, even intimidated, by the experience, it has instead brought great growth and spiritual progress to our family.
We have found that living in an Islamic culture helps us live our religion. We have also learned that warm gospel fellowship and love can be found in any part of the world.
Originally, our plans called for my return to teaching at a school in the western United States after completing my studies at Cornell University, in New York. But, to our surprise, the opportunity came for me to use my wildlife management training in the Arabian Gulf countries—first in Bahrain, and later in Dubai.
The ancient sport of falconry—hunting of birds and small animals with trained falcons—is still practiced on the Arabian Peninsula. In 1976, His Highness Sheikh Hamed ben Isa Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince of Bahrain, was looking for ways to combine the captive breeding of falcons with modern management techniques. He learned of my doctoral work on falcons, and that led to the job offer I received.
Bahrain is not a large oil producer, but it was there, in 1932, that oil was first discovered in Arabia. Rulers of the country have wisely used the resulting wealth to improve the lives of their people. Still, the contrasts are dramatic. Stopped at a traffic light one day on my way to a church meeting, I inspected the luxurious automobile just ahead of me while a cart donkey scratched his head on the back of my car.
The Bahrainis are well-grounded in modern life, yet the teachings of Islam play a major role in all aspects of their daily living. They are a friendly and gentle people, convinced that God is close by and aware of their needs.
Amid all that seemed different to us in Bahrain—the veiled women, open-air markets, and richness and luxury contrasting with the ancient life-style of the desert—we found the warm familiarity of fellow Latter-day Saints. With three other western families, we were part of a group of eight adults and eight children who held Church weekly meetings. Services are held on Friday in Muslim countries because that day is their Sabbath; Sunday is simply the second day of a six-day work week.
The group in Bahrain was organized into a branch in 1978, with Brother Sidney MaGill, a native of New Mexico, as the first branch president. With the arrival of other Latter-day Saints, it has since grown to thirty-five members.
After more than five years in Bahrain, my wife and I felt I had accomplished all I could at the falcon breeding center I had established there. We were thinking of returning to the United States when a similar position opened up in Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates farther down the Arabian Peninsula. My employer wished me well and told me warmly, “We will consider you a Bahraini export and send you to Dubai.”
The position at the Dubai Wildlife Research Centre, as wildlife consultant to His Highness Sheikh Mohamad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has given me the professional opportunity to do research on a much broader range of animals.
Unlike Bahrain, Dubai has only recently grown rich on oil, and in amounts of money difficult to imagine. Streets that were not even paved in 1968 are now lined with palaces and bordered with miles of shrubs and flowers grown with water distilled from the sea.
But the old ways are not forgotten; the sheikhs are still in touch with the people. Several times a week, my employer hosts a luncheon for anywhere from twenty to fifty men who have need to see him. We sit on the floor and eat with our hands. Some of the guests are bedouin herdsmen; others are merchants owning millions. All dress alike, and all are shown the same great courtesy. The sheikh’s guests may come to ask for help with their problems, to ask a favor, or simply to express their loyalty.
In 1982, when we arrived in Dubai, no Latter-day Saint services were being held. We found three Latter-day Saints there: a sister from the United States and two Filipino brethren. Sacrament meetings began in our living room. Our children used to say that for a year they didn’t go to church—church came to us!
Within eighteen months, however, new move-ins helped our branch membership grow to twenty-four; and by 1985, the small branch had grown to thirty-six. We rent space in the American school for meetings. Our branch offers the full program of the Church for our age groups, including early morning seminary.
Leaders of the Arab countries in which we have lived recognize the need of workers from other nations to worship in their own way. But proselyting was not tolerated. There are occasional converts, however—nonmember spouses from western workers’ part-member families. The waters of the Persian Gulf, which welcomed the ships of Alexander the Great and other ancient mariners, are the baptismal font for these people and for the children in our branch.
Our two oldest children, Catharine and Andrew, moved with us to Bahrain in 1976 when they were small. We have since added to our family Eric Alkhalifa, born in Bahrain, and Sarah Elisabeth, born in the United Arab Emirates.
Socially, life on this peninsula has both drawbacks and advantages for our family. Women from other cultures feel fewer restrictions in Dubai than in some other countries on the peninsula, but, true to Muslim tradition, most native-born women do not mingle freely in mixed company. While this might seem restrictive in some western societies, it is not seen so by these women. The traditional Muslim family system is strong. It works very well for them, but it also limits the opportunity for foreigners to know Arab families well.
Members of the Church generally make friends with the many other foreign families in these Arab countries. (Only a small percentage of the workers in technical jobs are natives.) The ten children who attended our son Andrew’s last birthday party, for example, were citizens of eight different nations.
There are challenges to Church members here. Because of the six-day work week, for example, those who enjoy recreational opportunities—like diving in the gulf—must decide whether to give up their pleasures on our Sabbath.
For our children (and for us), there is the challenge of affluence among their associates. Catharine was one of eighty girls chosen to attend, at no cost, a private school on the palace grounds. It was built by the crown prince, who wanted his daughters to have a western education. It is staffed by teachers from England, and it operates much like any other private school—except for the month-long field trip to Europe by private jet.
In some ways, however, members here are sheltered from many evils of the world. Leaders of these Arab countries will not accept any activity that threatens Islam or the faith of its believers. For example, drug and alcohol abuse, pornography, and immodesty are strictly controlled because they are offensive to Muslim beliefs. While laws forbidding these things may seem restrictive to some, we enjoy the freedoms they provide. We adults do not have to contend with ugly influences, and we can feel confident that our children are not coming in contact with them in their schools.
Latter-day Saints and other foreign workers living in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula find their lives affected daily by the teachings of Islam. Television and other activities are interrupted during the afternoons and evenings for the call to prayers. Public gatherings begin with readings from the Koran. This book, believed by Muslims to be revelation given to the Prophet Muhammad, is the basis for all the laws in the countries of this region and contains specific guidelines for daily life.
Hospitality is one of the fundamental principles of Islam. In social or business contacts, an Arab will express sincere concern for his guests and expect them to share his proffered coffee or tea. This courtesy has allowed me to explain the Word of Wisdom to Arab men—from the king of Saudi Arabia in his palace to camel herdsmen around their camp fires. They accept my belief without offense because it is similar to their health code, which requires abstinence from pork and alcohol. Strict Muslims also do not smoke.
Once, at the request of my employer, I accompanied him on a visit to the ruler of another Muslim country. We were part of a small group of sheikhs and government officials. We dined at the palace and were flown to the ruler’s private retreat. During one of the meals, several of the Muslims ordered wine. When I declined, someone joked about my becoming a Muslim, so I explained that I don’t drink because of my religious beliefs. Their consciences pricked, two of the men urged me to join with them. His Highness, the crown prince of Bahrain—my employer at the time—silenced them, and, turning to me, said, “Joe, don’t ever change.” I have always been thankful for my employer’s appreciation of my faith.
Church members who find themselves living as guests in a foreign culture—a small minority of the population, far from the familiar things of home—might easily feel lost and alone. But the Church is almost always there. With or without a family, it will be comforting to remember that the love of our Father in Heaven, the effectiveness of gospel principles, and the ministrations of the Holy Ghost are not limited by the size of the group at worship or by the design of its surroundings. When you strive to make a chapel of your home, the Spirit will be there.