“Our Oasis of Faith,” Ensign, Apr. 1988, 39
For twelve years now we have lived in countries of the Arabian Peninsula, far from the burgeoning wards and comfortable Church buildings of our home area. While we could 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. There is nothing in our basic LDS life-style that conflicts with that of the Muslim countries in which we have lived. Furthermore, we have learned that warm gospel fellowship and love can be found almost as easily in Arabia as in any other part of the world.
My wife, Paula Bunker, and I planned to make our home in the western United States after my doctoral study 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.
The ancient sport of falconry—hunting of quarry with trained falcons—is still practiced on the Arabian Peninsula. In 1976, His Highness Shaikh Hamed bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince of Bahrain, was looking for ways to bring captive breeding of falcons and modern management techniques to the royal mews. He learned of my studies at Cornell on breeding large falcons and asked me to become his wildlife adviser.
Bahrain is not a large oil producer by Gulf standards, 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, and the Bahrainis are well-grounded in modern life. Still, the contrasts are stark. Stopped in a traffic jam one day on my way to a Church meeting, I inspected the Rolls Royce just ahead of me while a cart donkey scratched his head on the back of my car.
For the Bahrainis, the teachings of Islam permeate all aspects of daily living. They are a friendly and gentle people, convinced that God is close by and aware of their needs.
We arrived in Bahrain in late 1976. Amid all that seemed strange—the veiled women, open-air bazaars, and opulence contrasting with the millennia-old life-style of the desert—we found the warm familiarity of fellow Latter-day Saints. With three other expatriate families, we were part of a Church group of eight adults and eight children. 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 as the first branch president. With the arrival of other expatriate Latter-day Saints, it has since grown to thirty-five members.
In Bahrain, I enjoyed a close working relationship with the Crown Prince. But after more than five years there, my wife and I felt I had accomplished what I had come to do at the center I had established. We were thinking of returning to the United States when another ruling family asked that I create a research center for them in Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates farther down the Arabian Peninsula. The Crown Prince wished me well and told me warmly, “We will consider you a Bahraini product and export you to Dubai.”
The position at the Dubai Wildlife Research Centre, as wildlife consultant to His Highness, Shaikh Mohamad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has afforded the professional opportunity to do research on a much broader range of animals.
Unlike Bahrain, Dubai has only recently reaped the riches of oil, and in sums 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 shaikhs 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 worth millions. All dress alike, and all are shown the same great courtesy.
Just before we left Bahrain in 1982, Elder Marvin J. Ashton set me apart as branch president for Dubai. No LDS services were being held there. When we arrived, we found three Latter-day Saints: a sister from the United States and two Filipino brethren. Sacrament meetings began in our living room. We selected furniture that was easily rearranged for meetings. Our children used to say that for a year we didn’t go to church—church came to us!
Within months, however, new move-ins swelled our branch’s membership. We now have forty-two members from four nations. Our branch offers the full program of the Church for our age groups, including early morning seminary. Relief Society is held on a weekday evening; were it held during Primary on the Sabbath, there would not be enough women left to hold a meeting.
Home teaching requires some innovative efforts. One member travels 150 km from Oman to be with us. He is taught over dinner in a member’s home. A ship’s captain can be visited only when he is in port. Sisters working in the homes of Muslims can receive only female visitors.
Leaders of the Arab countries in which we have lived recognize the need of expatriate workers to worship in their own way. But proselyting is not tolerated. As Church members, we do not do it; sadly, we must turn away nonmembers who show an interest in our religion. If they, too, are expatriates, we tell them, “We hope you will have the opportunity to hear the gospel from missionaries in your own country someday.”
There are occasional converts, however—nonmember spouses from expatriate 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 as little ones. We have since added 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 us. Expatriate women 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 their ways 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 personally.
Members of the Church generally find their friends among the thousands of other foreign families in these countries. (Only a fraction 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, Americans often schedule school and recreational activities on the Sabbath. The three Blazers in our branch will not play soccer on the Sabbath, so the American school keeps it free of games. Through such examples we are well known among the expatriates.
One of our sincere hopes is that our children will learn to love this land and its people. For this reason Eric was given an Arab middle name and Catharine attends a school with 50 percent Arab students. She was one of a hundred students chosen to attend, at no cost, a private girls’ 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 British teachers, and it operates much like any other private school—except for the month-long field trip to Europe by private jet.
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 the 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 foreigners, 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 encountering them in their schools.
Duty to God governs the actions of people here. People are very open and honest. There is no police presence because there is very little crime.
Latter-day Saints living in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula find their lives affected daily by the tenets 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 laws in 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 shaikhs and government officials. At one meal, 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 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.”
Is this kind of experience for everyone? No. But with proper preparation and the right attitude, it can be a wonderful time of growth. We have found overseas living to be very enriching and fulfilling.
Church members who find themselves living as guests in a foreign culture—far from the familiar things of home—might easily feel lost and alone. But the Church is almost always there. By inquiring of the Area Presidency, members can usually find other Latter-day Saints nearby.
Parents will want to stock up on gospel teaching materials before leaving home. You will need to rely heavily on your own resources to build testimonies and gospel-living skills within the family.
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 the design of its surroundings. When you strive to make a chapel of your home, the Spirit will be there.