Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 June 2019

A time to celebrate the women who made me the man I am today

Looking back at my personal and professional development, I realise my life has been shaped by an extraordinary cast of women

Saeed’s mum, left, and grandmother, at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, the city where he was born. Courtesy Saeed Saeed
Saeed’s mum, left, and grandmother, at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, the city where he was born. Courtesy Saeed Saeed

In the days leading up to International Women’s Day today, my work inbox was getting clogged up with emails from various restaurants promoting all sorts of deals, from high tea with mum to special brunches across the UAE.

One in particular caught my eye – it asked me to reflect on the women who have influenced my life. It got me thinking.

What started as an interesting mental exercise to pass the day then became all-engrossing. The reason for that is there are simply too many great women to add to that list.

It made me realise just how my personal and professional life has rested on the shoulders of an eclectic array of females spanning all walks of life.

I can say a lot about my mother. I can talk about how she led my two siblings and me from our birthplace in Abu Dhabi to forge a new life in Melbourne, Australia, as youthful Eritrean refugees.

I can describe her diligent and precise work ethic that allowed her to move from her earlier jobs as a receptionist and bookkeeper to becoming a successful entrepreneur and landlord. I could say a lot more, but she wouldn’t approve, because that has never been her style. A woman of action with no time for schmaltz, she remains the epitome of leading by example. I only fall short constantly because she raised the bar so high.

But those qualities didn’t emerge from a vacuum. Instead, they were drawn from an ocean of family talent that includes six other aunties and my grandmother. Our family – sorry to my benign uncles – remains a matriarchy through and through.

The regular gatherings of all the sisters and grandmother were akin to a parliamentary meeting.

Disputes were raised and dealt with. Policy – from the monetary to the social – was formed and approved. I would, of course, sit in the corner and keep my mouth shut. I realise now that instead of the usual family drill, what I was actually observing was tolerance, patience and leadership at play. The latter in particular was displayed by my grandmother.

It didn’t matter that she was basically illiterate. A pious woman, her intelligence stems from a keen emotional awareness and spirituality. She knew when to use a kind or constructively harsh word in equal measure.

Stepping out of the family tree, I discovered there were far more women responsible for shaping my outlook.

For example, I owe a lot of my cultural curiosity to Teresa and Zainy, who lived and worked in our home during an earlier stint in Abu Dhabi in the 1980s. Both from the Philippines, I credit them with expanding my view of the world as they openly discussed life back home, their Christian faith and the struggles of life as an expatriate. Then there was Leanne, who taught me the hard lesson that employment is not all play.

Stepping out of the family tree, I discovered there were far more women responsible for shaping my outlook.

She was my manager when I was flipping burgers as an 18-year-old at a McDonald’s in the middle of a highway back in Melbourne. We worked the late shifts and I hated everything about the experience. But, reflecting back on it now, I can only help but admire her dedication to excellence. She taught me about quality control and to be presentable to customers, even if it’s 4am.

It was Arina Usikov, a wonderfully worldly Russian-Australian poet, who was the first person to express an interest in my childhood in Abu Dhabi. We met at a conference about multiculturalism in 2008 in the Australian capital Canberra.

She told me she had never met anyone who had lived in the UAE capital. We bonded over our cosmopolitan upbringing and how that inspired our passion for writing. Arina was as beautiful as she was fragile. She took her own life in May 2010, and I have been an advocate for mental-health support ever since.

Finally, I’ve also been strongly impacted by the women who saw a modicum of talent in me when others – and I – were not so convinced.

After nearly 120 failed applications for a job as a journalist (I keep the emails in a folder as a reminder to be grateful), it was women’s rights advocate Tasneem Chopra who recommended me to an Australian bureaucrat, Jenny Cleeve, who helped me in finding work at a Melbourne paper as part of a government media cadet programme.

I’ve not looked back professionally since, but I will never forget these acts of kindness and the lessons learnt from this amazing cast of ladies. Happy International Women’s Day, indeed.

Updated: March 7, 2019 10:15 PM

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