ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates First lady Laura Bush came to the Middle East this week to raise breast cancer awareness, but her mission has been couched in a gracious plea for mutual understanding and world peace.
At each stop along her journey, which by week's end will have included the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan, Bush has managed a quiet coup of diplomacy. The topic may be breast cancer, but the message is healing in a broader sense.
In a world that at times seems impossibly at odds, what could be more unifying than shared concern about a disease that ravages mothers, sisters and wives? Whatever our cultural differences, everybody loves "Mama," or "Um," as she's called here.
Bush's visit as part of the U.S.-Middle East Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness and Research, initially launched in 2006 has been historic on several fronts. Bush has moved easily from country to country, charming audiences along the way with her sincerity and gentle touch.
Most important, she has helped women in this part of the world say the C-word cancer without shame. That isn't only a recent development, but one that will save lives and, perhaps, help build and fortify bridges between nations. As Bush told a roundtable of young female students:
"We have many things in common. ... What we all find out when we meet people from around the world is that human beings all have the same emotions, desires, dreams and frustrations."
At one especially poignant stop in Abu Dhabi, Bush met with breast cancer survivors at a "Pink Majlis" a circular pink tent situated within a hospital where women can come to talk freely about a subject that has been considered too embarrassing and frightening to mention.
The consequence of silence has been that many women are diagnosed in later stages of cancer when a cure isn't usually possible. In the Middle East, 70 percent of women with breast cancer have been diagnosed late. In the U.S., 80 percent are diagnosed early; of those, 96 percent survive.
Other cultural taboos and traditions in this part of the world are further inhibiting. Some women are still uncomfortable with self-examination, or reluctant to see a male doctor about so intimate a concern.
Seeing Bush seated in the majlis amid six women shrouded head-to-toe in black abayas was touching to witness. Some of the women showed only their eyes. One sat completely covered, a black shape wearing a pink ribbon.
In low voices, the women took turns talking through a translator about their battles with cancer and with a sometimes-unsympathetic culture. They are essentially trailblazers in their country, the first generation of women to step forward to seek treatment and talk openly.
A common theme emerged each time the first lady met with Emirati women whether young students or accomplished women. It was that cultural stereotypes on both sides hinder communication and understanding.
Several young women who had studied in the U.S. reported their delight in discovering that Americans didn't hate them, as they had believed, and that Americans weren't like the characters they'd seen in TV sitcoms. They were also happy to show their American counterparts that they weren't aliens.
As one student put it, "Under these robes, we're the same. We listen to the same music and watch the same movies. We like pizza and Chinese take-out, too."
Another memorable encounter was a lavish, all-women luncheon at the palace of Sheikha Fatima, mother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Three young members of the UAE Parliament with whom I spoke were eager to dispel false notions that they are, as one put it, "part of a harem." Emirati women honor their culture and wear the traditional robes, but they're also independent and ambitious, and they participate fully in the "men's world" of politics and business.
They want Americans to know that about them. They, too, believe that eliminating preconceptions and opening dialogue between the cultures are the best opportunities for a more peaceful world.
What was abundantly clear by the end of Bush's second day on this four-day tour is that communication is part of the cure, and I'm not just talking about cancer.
Women may not save the world, but at least they're talking to each other and saving each other's lives in the process. It's a start.