When I married my Palestinian Muslim husband way back when, I accepted from the start that a pet dog would not be part of our future. I knew that dogs were considered unclean by most Muslims, and particularly by my husband. Even though I grew up having dogs as a child, I accepted this. Just another cultural compromise. I decided we would have cats.
Of course, in Seattle, many people we knew had dogs. Every few years our children would beg for a dog of their own.
“Give it up,” I would say. “We’re cat people!”
Then we moved to Dubai. Living in this hot climate, in a Muslim country with my husband’s family regularly around, I knew that—more than ever—a dog was out of the question.
Then our villa was burglarized. Twice. While we were sleeping.
“These windows,” the policeman said, pointing to where the break-ins occurred, “they are just for show.”
We experimented with window bars and locks. A raised fence and barbed wire were installed. Still, I didn’t feel safe. I began throwing around the idea of a dog. This was met with a cold stare from my husband. Out of the question.
Months later, I received a shocking email from him: What do you think about this dog? Someone at work is looking for a home for him. Attached was a photo of a greasy-looking terrier.
I told him I would love a dog, but not that dog. My kids and I got busy pouring over the pet page of The Gulf News. Within a week I was ready.
When my husband saw the red dog dish in our house, he stopped in his tracks. “Hey, we haven’t decided yet.”
“I made an appointment,” I told him. “We’re choosing a dog tomorrow. K-9 Friends is expecting us.”
“Let’s not rush.” He looked a little panicked. “Let’s think about it.”
I reminded him the dog would be an outdoor dog and that we had already agreed. Then I stepped back and allowed the kids to work their manipulative magic. “Oh please, Baba!”
Somehow the kids and I held our ground until the appointment the next day. K-9 Friends, a dog rescue center, requires that the entire family selects the dog. The volunteer explained to me that they didn’t want any dog returned because of a mismatch with a family member.
So, we all trekked over to K-9 Friends, minus one, that is.
“My husband couldn’t come,” I told them. “He’s travelling—out of the country.” I lied.
All the dogs there had a similar look: a mixture of saluki, the tall, slim dog native to the Middle East and revered by many in the UAE. The dogs at K-9 Friends looked so much alike, it was as though they each had the same father, one feral dog who had impregnated all female dogs in Dubai.
Still, we found one that was distinctive. Our chosen saluki mutt was golden in color and sweet in nature. More importantly, he had excellent dog manners due to his former owners, a South African family who had left the UAE.
“Do not keep the dog outdoors,” the K-9 volunteer warned me. “He needs to be in the house around the family. In fact, he will be a member of your family.”
Yeah right, I thought.
At home, we named the dog Jessie, and I quickly realized the outdoor thing was not going to work. Jessie barked too much. Plus, it was nearly summer and way too hot. We dabbled with the idea of an air-conditioned dog house and priced them at Ace Hardware—absurdly expensive.
And so, Jessie became an indoor dog. He was allowed in one room only: the sunroom, a casual room off the back yard, a room which doubled as the TV room. Perfect!
Word spread that we had a dog. Our Muslim friends and family stopped by to see the dog and give their opinion on the dog-in-the-house matter. I learned that some Muslims really don’t care. (Actually, there were few of these.) Most had very strong opinions. Some said that our house was contaminated. Several told me that angels would not enter our home if we had a dog in it. They emphasized the point that dogs were unclean. A few of my in-laws suggested that we were unclean as well.
What I gathered from these discussions was that it’s the dog’s saliva that is considered unclean. Any Western expat who lives in the Middle East may already know this. If you are in the cinema watching a Hollywood movie, and a heart-warming scene appears, one with a dog licking someone’s face (or worse, their mouth), every Muslim in the audience will groan and turn away in disgust. Ever notice that?
The standard Muslim practice seems to be: if you get dog saliva on your hand, you must wash your hand seven times. (In our house, this translates to “wash your hands really really well.”) Meanwhile, some Muslims—just to be on the safe side—extend this saliva taboo to the entire dog. They think if dog saliva is unclean, better treat the whole animal as unclean.
To compound matters, many people in this part of the world have dog phobias. For them, their only dog encounters have been with stray dogs eating garbage by a dumpster. Or worse, they were bit or attacked by a dog.
All of this meant that when we have Muslim guests over, we put the dog in the backyard for the duration of their visit. Sometimes a guest immediately clues into the dog in back yard.
“Barking?” I ask. “You hear barking? Hmmm. I wonder where that’s coming from.”
They know it’s our dog and right away they ask if we keep the dog in the house. “Just in one room,” I tell them.
They are appalled.
It’s not only the Muslims who are appalled. Some of our Western friends are shocked, too. They are dismayed that we restrict our poor dog to only one room. They are appalled that we leave the dog in there all alone and that we shout at him if he steps one paw out.
Just when I thought I had figured out the Muslim/Arab attitude toward dogs, I witnessed something last week that surprised me. I was at the vet’s clinic, where I saw a severely injured medium-sized dog. He had been hit by a car, the Emirati woman in the waiting room explained. I expressed my sympathy for her dog. She told me that it wasn’t her dog. She had seen the dog get hit. When the driver didn’t stop, she did.
I love this story. Not because she saved the dog (well, that, too) but because it shattered a stereotype that I had held. I would never guess that an Emirati woman would get out of her car in her abaya and shayla, lift and carry an injured dog that wasn’t hers, put it in her car, and pay for its surgery. But she did.
Back to Jessie. After several years, he has given me peace of mind in the home. But, no, he’s not exactly a member of our family. In fact, my husband still threatens to get rid of him. However, when no one’s looking, he talks to Jessie and gives him an affectionate pat.
Do you have a cross-cultural dog experience to tell?