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.