Ibolya’s lesson to us all is to look out for one another

CCTV footage of the suspected murderer of Ibolya Ryan were seen across the globe. Photo courtesy Security Media
CCTV footage of the suspected murderer of Ibolya Ryan were seen across the globe. Photo courtesy Security Media

I was on a work trip to Europe when I heard about the Reem Island murder. From that distance, it all seemed especially surreal.

Yet even from the comfort of a hotel in Vienna, which was one of the cities in which Ibolya Ryan lived and where her ex-husband Paul and daughter Timia have until recently been based, the security-camera shots of the suspected killer stomping her evil way through Boutiq Mall – usually a pleasantly sterile, seemingly secure place – were frightening. The world was turned upside down.

It wasn’t until we saw pictures of Ibolya and heard the details that filled in her tragic life story, however, that the tears started to flow.

Here was a working mother, raised in Romania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, who through faith and perseverance had pulled herself up by her own bootstraps, trained as a teacher, worked in several countries, learnt new languages, successfully raised three children and survived a divorce, all with dignity and positivity.

With a continuing desire to learn more, she found a job as a nursery schoolteacher in a traditional area of Abu Dhabi, and moved here with the aim of understanding the UAE’s culture and integrating as much as possible. This woman had apparently taken on countless challenges with all the hope and self reliance of the model expatriate. But this teacher who believed in the future was stabbed to death in a toilet by a monster.

Round a dinner table in Vienna with a group of female Arab journalists, the view was unanimous. They were telling me – not asking my opinion – that “the niqab should be banned”.

Clearly, being able to see someone’s face is absolutely crucial in determining their intentions. And if their intention is to kill you, that split second of time which is gained or lost in that recognition could literally be the difference between life and death.

Obviously, the one person who does need to be unveiled is the killer. Yet calls for an outright ban of the niqab are not just about security but about people feeling superior towards a custom they see as backward.

While it’s fine for people in Europe to call for a ban there, it smacks of arrogance for non-Emiratis living in the UAE to expound upon this. I’ve confronted a few of my own preconceptions living in a mixed building in Abu Dhabi. It is a delight when a niqab-wearing neighbour and I say hello and goodbye to each other in the lift at exactly the same time.

Assuming the killing of Ibolya Ryan was a one-off, why should all wearers of the niqab be punished? In many parts of Europe, openness persists despite the occasional serious criminal act. Outside many ungated, unguarded apartment buildings in Switzerland, for example, the full names of each resident is listed along with their flat numbers. They are not going to change their system because of one crazy stalker.

If anything positive can come out of this event, perhaps it’s for people living in the UAE to realise that life here is real and not dreamland. It is borderline crazy to assume that “crime doesn’t happen” here, even if that image has been supported by the fact that most expatriates enjoy a crime-free existence.

In my seven years in the UAE, I’ve barely witnessed the kind of rowdy behaviour seen every night on the streets of the UK, let alone the violence or threats of violence which are everyday occurrences. We are shielded here, partly by our lifestyles, but this can warp our perceptions and make us vulnerable.

Perhaps Ibolya and the people who might have stepped in to help that day were temporarily immobilised by a frightening naivety and the belief that, here in the UAE, “these things don’t happen”. Like anywhere in the world, they can and they do. Let’s stay vigilant, confident, and, like Ibolya Ryan always seemed to be doing, always look out for others.

Rosemary Behan is The National’s travel editor

rbehan@thenational.ae

Published: December 13, 2014 04:00 AM

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