Friday, May 31, 2013

How are Americans different from Qataris?

Al Resala School: inside gate
I sit at a rectangular table in a secondary school classroom with ten 16- and 17- year old Qatari girls (Yemen, Libya, Syria also represented).  We're all surprised:  me, as I had no idea what to expect when I was invited to help the students and teachers with English in exchange for Arabic conversation; them because it's "ditch day," youm al masHoob, the last day before final exams.  Only 1/3 of the students is in attendance.  Students do not expect lesson plans or lectures, just a day to read, study, think.
The girls did not expect to work this day, and they especially don't expect to work with me.
American high schools have ditch day too, I say.
"Every Thursday is youm al masHoob here," says Bint al Jameela (the beautiful girl). "You're cute."
Each girl speaks local dialect and classical Arabic (fusHa).  All understand colloquial American English.
"Last year lessons were taught in English," says Bint al Jameela 2.  "This year everything is in Arabic."  She laughs.  "Plus, we watch Oprah, Dr. Phil, American Idol and listen to American music at home."
The building is a familiar structure - two stories of classrooms arranged around a large open common space, tucked behind a high stone wall, secured by thick steel gates.  Girls stand, sit, lean in hallways.  Teachers wear dresses/jackets/loose pants and abaya/sheyla - or not - and walk among students while carrying open laptops.
front gate
Inside the building students are casually dressed and (generally) do not cover.
"What does your name mean?" asks Bint al Jameela 3.
I shrug.
"You mean it's just a pretty sound?"  She shakes her head, takes me on a tour around the table:  Noor means light.  Ashwaq is a deep, enduring kind of love.  Miriam comes from the Bible as well as the Koran.  Jooahar is a precious jewel and Loolooah means pearl.
"Why do you want to speak Arabic?" "Where are you from?" "How old are you?" "What's your phone number?" "Will you go out with us?" "Come to my sister's wedding!"
Bint al Jameela 4 takes my picture on her ipad, plays music.  "This artist sings in fusHa," she says.  "It's good for you to listen."
We talk about where they'll travel when school is out.  They tell me about Ramadan, which begins (around) July 9, and Islam.  They tease one another, make jokes, laugh, correct my Arabic, and offer instruction:
  • the little dots above and below Arabic letters are called nota (fusHa) or nikita (local dialect).
  • the word for "architect" is a combination of the word for "engineer" and the word for "building": mohandis ma'maahree
  • YathHak: to laugh
  • saHr: magic
  • sahr: easy
  • SaHeeH: correct
  • raaHah: break (ie, what the teacher is getting while her students are busy with me)
We talk about culture, geography, family, boys.  What will you do after you graduate? I ask. Do you drive?  Do you cover completely?
I share a photo of my babies.  They are entranced by Katie's dimples, Kimber's smile.  And (ahem), "how old is your son?"
my kids
The girls are intelligent, well-travelled, motivated, interesting, interested, curious, beautiful.  They are teenagers - and are like teenagers everywhere.  Ma sha allah (God be praised).
Bint al Jameela taps my shoulder.  "How are Americans and Qataris different?" she says.
I look around the room.  Dark hair, skin, eyes.  Laughter, conversation, agreement, disagreement, interest, intrigue, the quiet one, the outgoing one.
"People are people no matter where you live," I say.  "It's just the packaging that's different."
Ma sha allah.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

48 hours in Doha - pictures

Chicago to Doha, non-stop:  North America, Europe, Africa, Asia.  An ocean, a couple of seas, 13 hour journey, plus an 8 hour time difference.
It's my 7th trip across the world - and the good folks at Qatar Airways surprise me with a business class upgrade:  porcelain mugs, plates, bowls, tiny salt and pepper shakers, complementary full sized toothbrush.  Would you like wine, Ma'am?  Coffee?  Soda?  Nuts in a glass bowl?  Spacious seat, movie screen at the end of a pull out bed, cozy pajamas and a quilted blanket.
My knees are happy.  But inside my head:
this is what jet lag feels like
Off the plane and it's back to work:  training, meetings, case study notes.
And coffee, lots of coffee.
There is this:

Start to finish, one small load takes 6 hours
and this:
Dave Ramsey disciples hammering out the budget
What's the exchange rate again?
Finally, a long, long sleep:
And the world looks like this again:
quiet Friday morning boardwalk at The Pearl
shops closed for afternoon Siesta, 1-4pm, everyday
Palm trees in the city, loaded with dates
Time for dinner out:
we like the bottomless chips and salsa
A bookstore run:
more Office Max/Archivers than Barnes & Noble
commercial children's books, in Arabic
school supplies and books in English
Job site visit:
Big hole, filling up
Bob and Cindi, happy to be together again:
Late blog, few words. I will do better.  But first...

Friday, May 17, 2013

Qatar and the News: On Al Jazeera

Widely considered the CNN of the Middle East, Al Jazeera is an internationally renown news outlet that broadcasts 24/7 - all day, every day.  The station has a reputation for telling-it-like-it-is in the Middle East while other Arab news sources might be less forthcoming.  It is controversial and sometimes scorned for delivering sensitive information about its Arab neighbors and broadcasting adversarial and/or graphic videos.  Like many great reporting agencies, it has been boycotted and banned at the same time it's celebrated, honored and praised.  It has offices all over the world, including the US.
But its home is in Doha.
Totally unrelated photo of Kimber standing inside Doha's fabulous Sheraton Hotel, 12-15-2012.
I do not have a photo of Al Jazeera's home office which occupies nearly a city block across the street from a set of shops I frequent.
I have not been able to locate a photo online.
It's possible photos are not allowed.
If photos are not allowed you won't ever see one here.
But hey, isn't this an awesome pic of Kimber inside the Sheraton?
Founded by Qatar's Emir Khalifa bin Hamad al Thani, Al Jazeera's first broadcast aired November 1, 1996, one year post coup.  The outlet is a cornerstone of the new Qatar - the one that would become the wealthiest country in the world (per capita), win the 2022 World Cup and effectively rise from sand to skyscrapers, Ford to Ferrari, homespun to less than 20 years.
The network's English language channel aired in November 2006.
At the time of Emir Khalifa bin Hamad al Thani's ascension to power there were approximately 250 displaced journalists hanging out in Doha, having just been let go by a Saudi Arabian effort who didn't appreciate their too-independent, BBC bred reporting style.  Qatar's emir hired half of them, ostensibly to provide a means of promotion for the upstart peninsula country - and Al Jazeera was born.
In Arabic Al Jazeera means "the island."
There is controversy surrounding the network, which is funded in part by the Qatari government:  Osama bin Laden's videos aired here and correspondents were once banned from Israel amid charges of biased reporting.  Plus, sensitive Doha happenings are not always represented.  For example, the terrible Villagio fire that killed 13 babies and 4 adults, initiated a shutdown of offices, malls and project sites countrywide to review fire codes and assure safety compliance and is a continuing source of dissention as "those responsible" have yet to appear in court…
Yeah, the night of the fire got about 30 seconds on Al Jazeera.
Today, Al Jazeera has " over sixty bureaus around the world that span six different continents…broadcasts to over 250 million households across 130 countries…" With a long list of prestigious awards to its credit, Al Jazeera is recognized as an influential, go-to source for hard-hitting news from everywhere...but especially in the Arab world.
A few headlines from today's Al Jazeera online:
UN chief in Russia as Syria crisis deepensDeadly blasts hit mosques in PakistanIsrael to approve four West Bank settlementsAustralian scientists work to save Koalas
Among top hits in a search for "Doha News" on Al Jazeera's website:
Deal reached in Doha to extend Kyoto protocol'Black Gold' stars at Doha film festivalFreed Sami al-Hajj returns to Doha
I searched specially for this one (includes a video):
But had to go to The Washington Post to learn more about this (very recent) incident:
Other popular local Doha news sources

Friday, May 10, 2013

"Qatar? Where's that?" A Brief History and Answers to Commonly Asked Questions

In 1994 Qatar's Emir Khalifa bin Hamad al Thani takes an ill-advised vacation and his son Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani moves into the Royal quarters.

It's a quiet, non-confrontational coup that changes everything for this tiny country in the heart of the Gulf. Overnight, wealth moves from palace coffers into the hands of the people. Land grants are issued. Deals are made. Hotels are built.

Seventy short years ago, Qatar was little more than a vast expanse of sand. In the winter, Bedouin families roamed the desert as camel and goat farmers. In the summer, they took to the sea, in search of fish and pearls. They ate rice and fish and drank water imported from Bahrain. The country was steeped in poverty made more troubling by the crash of the pearl industry (brought on by the advent of the Japanese cultured pearl market).

Until 1939, when oil is discovered.

Qatar's first schools appear in 1954. Now, modest homes replace goat hair tents. Sedans motor over newly paved streets. Foreigners, mostly British, wander the marketplace. The Corniche chisels a semi-circle around Doha Bay and the Sheraton Hotel steps into the sky.

February 2012 skyline with Sheraton Hotel on far right

Growth is related to oil production needs as wealth is tightly controlled by those in power.

Until, just twenty years ago, when Dad gets the pink slip.

With HH the Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani at the helm, lots of stuff happens, seemingly all at once. Infrastructure redesign, systems reorganization, international diplomacy, publicity, an airport. Stadiums are built. World class sporting events are held.

But the building boom really begins when Qatar wins its bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Now there is Construction with a Capital C. Architects, engineers, plumbers, the Cable guy. Cranes march across the sky. Estates replace homes that replaced goat-hair tents. Ferraris replace Fords that replaced camels. There are nannies, maids, cooks, a full time house boy to dust the foyer. There is the zig zag building, a bullet shaped tower that changes color, a high rise shaped like a sail. Burger King, McDonalds Chili's, Marriott, The Ritz, Gordon Ramsey. A shiny new souq. An airport.

A brand spanking new downtown (our "Doha What/Why"), under development.

December 2012, National Archive (shown here under construction) will overlook souq

Unofficial reports state that there are three times more expats living in Qatar as there are Qataris. Many of these foreign workers, like Bob, are temporary residents - in country until the job is done. Others are permanent guests attracted by the promise of work: hotel receptionists, clerks, drivers, servers and more.

Today Qatar is the wealthiest country in the world, per capita. And becoming wealthier: a new natural gas field was just discovered.

UPDATE: In July 2013, the country welcomes a new Emir.

It seems Qatar's story is just beginning…

Commonly Asked Questions:

Where is Qatar?

The country is a peninsula that extends from Saudi Arabia into the Arabian Gulf. United Arab Emirates to the south, Kuwait to the north, Iran across the water. The country shares a channel with Bahrain.
Do they speak English there?

Yep. English is more commonly spoken in Qatar than any other language, including Arabic.

Do you have to cover?

The country follows Shari'a law which means modesty is expected from everyone, residents and guests, men and women. At this time ladies are asked to cover from shoulders to knees when in public and to wear hijab (and sometimes abaya) when visiting sacred areas.

Is it safe?

They say you could leave your purse on a curb in downtown Doha, return a week later and it'd still be right there waiting for you, undisturbed. Consequences for bad behavior are swift and severe.

They say.

There are places a woman should not go unescorted - like wander into the workers' camps alone - or pretty much anywhere late at night.

Looking for a political response? Qatar is respected in the area as a sort of Switzerland of the Middle East. This means that countries in conflict are - peacefully - represented…everywhere. We follow the rules, keep a low profile. And we feel safe.

Arabian or Persian Gulf?

The answer depends upon which side of the water you're standing. The Qatar/Saudi Arabia/UAE side prefers the term "Arabian Gulf." The Iran/Iraq/Pakistan side says "Persian Gulf." When in doubt, omit the adjective.

Do you like it there?

Yes! We're studying the language, learning the culture, seeing the country, exploring. While we miss our family and friends so far, far away - we're having a great, grand adventure!

Do you get to travel?

Qatar's location makes it easy and (relatively) inexpensive to zip off to some fantastic places. We've been to UAE, Italy and Greece, with plans to visit England, France, Ireland, Turkey, Oman.

What about church?

Islam is the official religion of Qatar so mosques are the most visible religious structures. It is allowed to worship other faiths recognized by Islam. We attend services every week in a beautiful, unadorned building inside a Religious Compound that serves Catholic, Protestant, Eastern and Orthodox belief systems.

Friday, May 3, 2013

You're Not the Boss of Me (except in Doha)!

"Your husband needs to sign this document giving you permission to work."
I laughed and returned the paper.  "Right. Funny."
"No, really," she said. She held the page so I could read it. "Isn't he your sponsor?"
Article 18:
Each Expatriate granted an entry visa to the State of Qatar shall have a sponsor…
I required Bob's written permission to work - or drive - in Doha.
(photo edited)
In the name of God the Merciful
To the esteemed Director of Traffic, Greetings.
Regarding Placement of light driver's license: I agree that my wife of American Nationality may have a driver's license under my sponsorship.
Thank you and to the presenter,
Robert J. Kennaley
Hanging out in Doha isn't the same as planning a Roman holiday, taking a weekend in Athens or jetting to Dubai for a round of golf. To visit, live and/or work in Qatar, you need a reason, a place to stay and an official someone to vouch for you.
The process is either complex or…really complex…depending upon where you're from.  Citizens of 33 specific nations may purchase visas on arrival while those from UAE, GCC countries, and Gulf and Arab States enter without visas. All other nationalities must apply months in advance.
Some nationalities are denied entry. For example, recently there were visa bans on women from Philippines - and anyone from Lebanon. Some foreign workers must leave the country at 60 years old, no matter how long they've lived and worked in Qatar. And (while I haven't been able to verify it) word is non-Qataris over 70 years old are not allowed into the country at all.
To extend visits beyond the initial 30 days, it is necessary to leave and return (so as to begin a new 30 day period) or apply for residency - a process that involves x-rays, blood work, medical evaluation, fingerprints, photographs, official and authenticated raised-seal college and marriage certificates - and stacks of paper. But first and foremost:
You must have a sponsor.
Article 19:
The residence sponsor, whether a natural or legal person, shall satisfy the following requirements:
1.  to be a Qatari national or an Expatriate resident under the law, and if the sponsor is a legal person, it must have a main office located within the State of Qatar or operate a branch therein;
2.  to be qualified to fulfill the responsibilities consequent on sponsorship imposed hereby, and to employ and supervise the Expatriate if he enters the country as an employee.
Here's what I know about sponsorship in Qatar:
A sponsor is either the expatriate's employer or spouse.  In 2010, expatriate women were granted limited permission to sponsor husbands.  The current law states only that the "head of household" may sponsor spouse and/or children and that an employed woman may "bring her husband" under certain conditions:
Article 21:
Responsibility for sponsorship of the Expatriate shall be determined as follows:
1.  The Expatriate shall only be sponsored by the employer;
2.  The head of the family shall be the sponsor of family members resident with him in the State;
3.  A visitor shall be sponsored by his host resident in the State of Qatar;
4.  A woman shall be sponsored by the person supporting her with whom she has come to reside, even if she subsequently takes up employment, and a woman who enters the State of Qatar for employment purposes may bring her husband with her in accordance with the requirements determined by ministerial resolution; and
5.  A Qatari woman married to a non-Qatari may, subject to the approval of the competent authority, introduce her husband and children under her own personal sponsorship.
Since sponsors may be liable for an individual's debts and other bad behavior, written permission from one's sponsor is necessary for everything from opening a bank account to buying a car or taking a vacation.  Some sponsors retain employees' passports and travel documents.
To change jobs, individuals must acquire a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the current employer/sponsor.  Employees who end jobs and leave the country are not officially allowed to return to Qatar for two years.
There are exceptions - usually involving Wasta:  the Middle Eastern form of cutting-in-line, bending-the-rules, lets-make-a-deal.
But back to the beginning:  my job, that paper and Bob's permission.
How does a grown up, independent American woman who's lived, worked and traveled alone, bought and sold stuff, managed a household, homeschooled three kids, made decisions, handled adversity, won and lost on her own merit…for years and years and years…seek permission from her husband to work?
Common objectives, shared goals, mutual understanding, doing what it takes, commitment, love.  And then:
"Sign here, please."
Happy Together