x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

My Life: Maryam Ismail on luxury

On why real luxury is measured in free time, not in material things.

For nearly a month and a half, I had been suffering from excruciating back pain that had me apologising to my creator for all of my past and future sins. But like every test it wasn't without its lesson. Lying flat on my back, at home alone, I used the time to read, do sit-ups and watch endless episodes of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations . I think that Bourdain's way with words worked better than any painkillers, of which I had plenty.

And yet, in the midst of this flurry of horizontal activity, I realised how lucky I was. Without any pending appointments, no boss breathing down my neck asking when I'll be back and no deadlines, I had all the time in the world to just lie around and get better. What a luxury.

Then when I didn't think it could get any better, my doctor recommended that I get a massage to help heal my back. I went for it. I felt like a pampered odalisque, surrounded by so much luxury that I had to say: "OK, enough." The bubbly mineral pool, the heated stones and the divine oils had me walking taller and in less pain. Of course, I needed to see a specialist afterwards who gave me some pills, but after weeks of pain I am better now. For a moment I wondered if I'd ever get back to normal. Alhamdulillah, I did.

What is luxury? Is it the material wealth or just having the freedom to enjoy the moment? Maybe it's both.

Sometimes, I feel as if I'm the nameless shepherd-hero in Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist - a dreamer trying to catch my destiny by the hand finding it eludes me every time. Nevertheless, I'm making the best of my time, enjoying the sights and scenes and learning everything that I can. Since leaving my home in New Jersey, I found myself sitting right in the middle of my dream without even realising it at first. And just like the hero in TheAlchemist, I've learnt that when something goes terribly wrong, it's not all bad news.

Most people would consider luxury something material - a fancy car, a multi-roomed mansion, servants, racks and racks of clothes - but I prefer having hours to while away, chatting with my kids, taking walks in the park, studying the habits of birds, having coffee with my girlfriends, or just getting lost in a good book.

However, it wasn't always this nice. Whenever I think about how many years I worked and how I raced from here to there, I pray that I shall never live like that again. Even now, I cringe when I remember my crazed working days. Standing at the corner of Bleeker and Washington streets in Newark, New Jersey, I would watch the rush of briefcases, wet hair and the scent of Irish Spring soap pass by. In the back of my mind I'd hear the lyrics of that anthem from the ska band The Specials: "Working for the rat race, you know you're wasting your time".

How I longed to find an escape route or a hidden door in that labyrinth of labour.

Finally, my prayers were answered. I found a cute guy, got married, moved to the UAE, and now those days are over. He works; I play house and write.

Now, I love sitting at my favourite cafe revelling in the beauty of the blue sky painted with the palm fronds gently tossing in the wind standing in solemn salutes. It often amuses me how this beautiful, serene place is so different from the popular images of the Middle East. Images of terminal conflict and the lack of freedom and despair fill the news. Yet, to me this is my paradise.

Luxury can mean many things; time, material wealth and even health. In my case, I guess I have them all.

What a blessing indeed.


Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who is working on her forthcoming book, From Alaska to Mongolia: The Musings of the Muslim World and Beyond