A few things you learned last month at the Sharjah International Reading Festival in the United Arab Emirates


That the flight from Los Angeles to the United Arab Emirates is one of the longest nonstops in the world. And that the flight path is not over the Pacific but a huge arc over the United States, Canada, the far, far north and then south, something you figured out only when, a couple hours into the flight, you looked out your window and thought, Wait a minute, I recognize those mountains! Those are the Rockies! 


That when given a writing prompt – write about a place you love, using all five senses to describe it – children the world over, no matter their religion or dress or gender, will write about their grandmother’s kitchen or their favorite playground or a place their family goes on vacation or their bedroom, where they are surrounded by their books and toys and stuffed animals.


That if you are given the chance to head to the desert for an excursion that involves camels, slaloming down enormous dunes in four-wheel drive vehicles with half the air let out of their tires, a henna tattoo, a turn at a hookah, a Sufi spinning dancer and wandering around the shifting sands of shifting dunes and thinking about everything that lies beneath that shifting sand, you should do it.


That if the quiet young driver of the car ferrying you from the Expo Center to the hotel late at night suddenly asks if you have ever tried traditional Arab tea, and you tell him you haven’t, and he asks if you want to try some, say yes. Then sit in the back seat of the car as he leaves the highway and drives here and there on the twisting narrow streets of an unfamiliar neighborhood. Think about the trust we place in other human beings every minute of every day: That our cars were assembled with care, that the pipelines and poles that bring us fuel and electricity will hold, that the food we eat isn’t poisoned, that the stranger driving you down unfamiliar streets in an unfamiliar country speaking a language you wish you could speak but don’t will take care of you. Watch as you pull into a tiny fluorescent-lit shop and a man comes out to the car and your driver tells him “two teas” or what you assume is “two teas” because the man nods and goes back to the shop and comes back with two small styrofoam cups brimming with fragrant tea. When the driver hands you one of them, take a sip: scalding black tea steeped with lots of sugar and evaporated milk, from the taste of it anyway. Tell the driver it’s delicious, because it is, and see the smile spread across his face. Drink the entire cup on the way back to the hotel and then tell him again how good it is, and thank you thank you thank you, and then accept his own untouched cup because he sees how much you loved yours, and nod and smile when he tells you his name and that if you want more tea, he will take you back to the shop.


That you can generally count on being the tallest woman, if not the tallest person, in any given photograph.


That the death of Prince, which struck you hard and fast when you read about it in the middle of the night, was shared by fans across the world.


That wandering from display to display in a festival filled with books in Arabic is an experience that a) makes you wish you could read that lovely-to-look-at language and b) brings you back to early childhood, before you knew how to read, when all you focused on were the illustrations and the book cover, and how that focus is, when you think about it, as meaningful as the words themselves.


That while you assumed that the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, might be a little taller than the other tall buildings you’ve seen –the Sears Tower, the Empire State Building– it is actually much, much taller.


That the Museum of Islamic Civilization is enlightening and informative and also beautiful.


That no matter where in the world or upon whose skin a tattoo is glimpsed, the story behind that tattoo is often one of life – the appreciation of it, the longing for more of it, an inked memorial to a loved one who lost theirs.

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That sometimes friendships are instant, as when, three minutes into conversation, the writer next to you asks you to describe each of your children in a single sentence that captures their essence, and you hop to because what a delightful assignment. And when another writer and you discover, during the course of a few hours spent wandering the souk and talking and bargaining for scarves together, that your similarities are uncanny.


That the sight of a Sufi dancer spinning in the desert on a starry night is mesmerizing.


That your shame and embarrassment and apologies over the ongoing hate speech and condemnation of Muslim people by a prominent presidential candidate from your country –as if all followers of Islam, a religion practiced by 1.5 billion people in the world, the biggest religion in the world, are ISIS– will be met, in general, by understanding and sympathy because the people you meet at the festival live in, or are originally from, countries like Iran and Iraq and Pakistan and Syria and Egypt, places where the government has often enacted policies at odds with the living and breathing humans who must live and breathe under those policies.


That in the course of a long, intense and beautiful conversation between a fascinating Pakistani doctor /writer and her equally fascinating daughter, in which you learn that 40% of Pakistanis are illiterate, the daughter –whose English is perfect and whose love of reading seems to exceed even the hundreds of writers at the festival’s love of reading — will suddenly exclaim that when she watches British and American movies she sees houses filled with bookcases and books and feels intense jealousy because So Many Books!, you will picture your own house, filled with bookcases and books, and feel a different, unfamiliar kind of gratitude for them.


That when you get on the plane at the end of the week for that 16-hour flight back to your own country, you will be thinking about the kindness and generosity of literally everyone you met during your week in Sharjah. And how, when you tried out the four phrases of Arabic that you had attempted to memorize, including “Peace be with you,” the phrase that came back to you was “And the same to you.”


My Tattoo Story: Lenore and Alison

Lenore, Hoboken
Alison, Minneapolis, Vermont and southern California

We’re both writers, and we met last month at the Sharjah International Reading Festival in the United Arab Emirates. It was one of those instant connections, an immediate friends-forever sort of thing. The week we spent in Sharjah was filled with deep conversations with writers and illustrators from around the world but mostly from the Middle East. A few days into our trip we went out to the desert together, an experience which included slaloming down steep dunes in four-wheel drive vehicles, a performance by a Sufi spinner, dinner, camels and henna tattoos. Our tattoos, unlike our friendship, will fade in a couple weeks’ time.


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My Tattoo Story: Jacob

JacobLos Angeles

My very first tattoo was what started my career. It was a determined step forward into a new life and a step toward new goals. It was a statement of commitment, whether or not I knew how far I would have to go. All of my tattoos inspire me to try to be a better person and are constant reminders to me to keep working hard and to never give up. And occasionally they make me feel like a super hero.

The question marks and bass clefs came together on the back of a book while I was on the road supporting America’s Got Talent runner-up Cas Haley on his first big tour. “Bass clefs for what I do, and question marks for the inevitable uncertainty of what it is that I do,” is what I told myself. It was something that I kept drawing on night after night after our gigs. By the time we got back home I had finished the pattern and blew a good part of my paycheck on getting it tattooed onto my self. Through the course of my career, this first tattoo has become my business logo and shows up on my website, my business cards, it’s inlaid on the front of two of my electric basses, and it’s even on the front of my first record. Don’t be surprised to see it on t-shirts soon!



My Tattoo Story: Siobhan

Siobhan, London

My tattoo story begins in sadness and ends in happiness. Five years ago my partner was diagnosed with terminal cancer. We thought he had only a short time to live. At one point, early into the shock of it all, he said to me in passing, “You’re a shooting star.” It was such a beautiful thing to say, and so surprising to me, because I don’t think of myself that way. But more than that, the idea that he had said this to me in the midst of what he was coping with made me think, Okay, I can do this. I can be strong. And I got this tattoo on my forearm to remind me of what he’d said. He survived the cancer –we are so lucky–and I treasure my tattoo.


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My Tattoo Story: Dennis

Dennis, Houston

I just published a book titled “The Play’s the Thing,” aimed at young adults, with the goal of making Shakespeare something that you want to read instead of have to read. Shakespeare’s plays have been incredibly meaningful to me, and I decided to commemorate the end of the project with two tattoos.

The first is from Henry IV, Part One. Falstaff, reluctant to go to war, says, instead, “Give me life.” The second is from The Winter’s Tale, in which Leontes, convinced his wife has been fooling around with his best friend and certain that his newborn daughter is not his, orders Antigonus to take the child to a remote place and abandon her there. Which Antigonus does, but after he leaves her, the audience hears hunting horns and barking dogs, which leads to the greatest stage direction ever: “Exit pursued by a bear.” (He’s eaten off stage.)

So on one arm, there’s give me life. On the other, an acknowledgment that when you least expect it, you can get eaten by a bear.

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My Tattoo Story: Liz

Liz, Seattle

My parents literally have my back. My mom and I got matching tattoos a few years ago — roses, because Rose is her middle name. I’d said I might go for it on Facebook, and the next time she visited me in Seattle, we both went for it!

And on my dad’s birthday, November 22, in 2014, I had the first of three sessions on a sunflower/dahlia tattoo. Sunflowers were his favorite flower (he loved Van Gogh!), and I’d been wanting this tattoo for a long time. On that same birthday, he was in intensive care after surgery for the cancer that took his life five months later. I’m grateful he got to see my sunflowers — something permanent can be very comforting.


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My Tattoo Story: Heather

Heather, New York City

I loved this line from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman as soon as I read it in a Romantic Literature class in college. I carried it around in my pocket for ages, thinking how it captured my whole life philosophy so well in just a few words. (The whole line is Do I contradict myself? Very well. I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.) And I had the idea to tattoo it onto my forearm. But the aesthetics never quite came through for me, because choosing a font was impossible. I knew whatever I chose I’d end up hating in a year or two. I was talking with a good friend about it, and he said, “Why not get it in Walt Whitman’s handwriting?” And it was the aha moment I’d been waiting for. I scanned the internet looking for the right manuscript pages. Turns out they didn’t exist, but I was able to cobble the words together from a few separate sources. (If you look closely, you can see that “multitudes” changes style in the middle…it gets messier at the end, because it came from two entirely different words from different poems written years apart.) The artist was Michelle Tarantelli at Saved Tattoo in Willliamsburg. I admired the nuance she was able to get in her black and white art, and knew she’d be able to capture the feeling of a fountain pen.


My Tattoo Story: Erin

Erin, Illinois

My dad passed away last year suddenly. My sister and I were devastated and decided to do tribute tattoos for him on our right wrists. My original idea was to copy a poster he had made in the garage in his handwriting. It was a Chevy Symbol with the Words 1 HOT VET. He restored Corvettes as a hobby and I came up with the specialized plate for the 1962 (he also restored a 1958) which was 1HTVET. However, after thinking about it, I wasn’t really crazy about having to explain why my wrist says “1 Hot Vet” on it. So, luckily, my sister was going to do a poppy with his signature as the stem. I fell in love with her idea. My dad  served in the Air Force during Vietnam, and at the time of his death was the Commander of the VFW Post in Bloomingdale, IL. Being a Veteran was very important to him.  Poppies are a symbol of remembering our Veterans. My Dad is obviously my favorite Veteran. Finding his signature for the stem was not as easy as one might think, but we got it. In the end my sister also changed her mind and went with just his signature. This is by far the tattoo that gets the most compliments.


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