Friday, August 30, 2013

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon: Middle Eastern Answer Key**

The room is large, square, bright and full of little girls. Shoes squeak, children squeal, sound multiplies on the shiny tile. The ceiling is a pyramid of windows that allows the sun to shimmer in the artificially cool air. Alcoves at each corner of the square lead to hallways which lead to classrooms. The space smells of lemon cleaner.
I sit on a bench along the wall. One small person speed walks toward me. Two follow, then three and more until all around me are little girls, four, five, six deep: around, beside, above, at my feet.
Where are you from?
What is your mother's name? Your father's?
Ahhhh. They want to know my secrets.
In Arab culture a person's name is a storyboard chock full of information. It reveals lineage, history, life, death and a whole lotta stuff in between. Who, what, when, where…if you only knew how to read it.
Here's how it works:
  • The eldest son is named after the paternal grandfather
  • The eldest daughter is named after the paternal grandmother
  • Subsequent children are given names that reflect a desirable trait or commemorate an important person in the tribe
  • Following the name comes the word bin ("son of") or bint ("daughter of") and Dad's name
  • Following Dad's name comes bin and Dad's Dad's name
  • Then comes bin and Dad's Dad's Dad's name
  • And so on and so forth, ending with the family's tribal name
Sometimes multiple tribal names are added that include sub-tribe or nicknames that tell more of the family's story.
For example, the name of a first son of first sons in the (fictional) Al Nazy tribe would look like this:
Ahmed bin
Mahmoud bin
Ahmed bin
Mahmoud bin
Al Nazy
Qataris can "read" another local's name and immediately transcribe relationships, rights to one another, familial boundaries and more: how are we related? are we friends or enemies? "marriageable" to one another?
It's the Middle Eastern answer key to Kevin Bacon's Six Degrees of Separation.
"Any one person (including me, Kevin Bacon) is connected to any other person through six or fewer relationships, because it's a small world."
To protect a person's name and to show extra respect, Qataris call one another by a nickname that describes an achievement (ie, "Hajj" for someone who's completed the Hajj) or use a person's kunya. The kunya refers to a person through their first male child, whether born or unborn.
For example, Ahmed Al Nazy (any of them, above) is Bu* Mahmoud (father of Mahmoud). Local men of all ages refer to one another using the kunya.
If you want to know an Arab national's kunya, ask, "Abu man?" or "Um man?"
  • Qatari passports list 3-5 generations
  • Women don't change their names when they marry; they are always associated with their fathers and their birth family
  • It's traditional to give a gift to the child when a baby is named for you
  • A child's kunya is Um/Bu (father's name)
  • When a woman marries, her kunya changes from Um (her father's name) to Um (her husband's father's name)
  • Women reserve use of the kunya for older women
  • A man uses the kunya to address all women
  • Qataris do not name children for themselves - as long as they're living
  • If a son's name and his father's name are the same, it means the father died before the son was born
  • Qataris also refer to one another as "sister" (ikhty) or "brother" (ukhooy) or in the case of older women, "aunt" (khalti) or older men, "uncle" ('ammi)
  • A person converting to Islam is not required to change his/her name - unless the name conflicts with Islamic teachings/values
All of this seems pretty complicated when you're from a place where children are named for parents, movie stars or according to the latest trends: North West, Apple, River, Dakota.
"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.
As for me and that troop of little girls:
"I am Lucinda bint Charles bin Charles Hedrick.
I am bint Beggy.
I am Um Chris.
I am Um Katie and Um Kimber.
I am Jedda Krissy and Jedda Killian.
I am ikht wo khaalah."
"But you can call me Cindi."
Beautiful Babies, named for family, in thanksgiving and to make a pretty sound.
They call me "Mom."
*In Classical Arabic the word for "Father" is Ab and "Mother" is Um. Gulf Arabs say Yubba ("Father") and Yumma ("Mother"). For the kunya, this is shortened to Bu and Um.
**The information in this post comes from personal experience, local interaction and a class I took at Fanar called "Swalif" (Conversation).


Friday, August 23, 2013

Rite of Passage: Car Accident in Doha

Smashed in Doha
You are braked in traffic gridlock on Doha's heavily travelled, construction absorbed Corniche.  Your car jolts forward.  At the same moment, you hear sounds like foil wrapped potato chips crunched into a microphone.
You are not hurt.
You put the car in park.  Say a few choice words.  Grab your phone.  Open the door.
everywhere lines of red and white barriers
Gravel rattles to the ground, poured from a six-wheel dump truck behind the red and white construction barrier inches away.  The air is thick with humidity, exhaust, smoke.  Horns bleat, people shout, lights flash.  Cars, trucks and vans circle around your parked car to drive on the shoulder of the road. You smile and wave (might as well).
A lady in hijab and abaya sits at the wheel of the sedan stopped behind you.  She and her male passenger face forward, unmoving.  Her car's front end is crushed.  Your SUV's bumper is scraped silver and white.
You knock on the sedan's driver's side window.  After a pause the window slides down.  Her eyes: brown.
"Would you like fries with that?"  No, you don't say it.  That would be silly.  Instead:
Are you okay?  Do you know what to do now?
We agree that this was your fault, right?
She nods.  Her passenger grabs a backpack, climbs a construction barrier and walks away.
"He goes to airport,"  she says.  "I think he will be late."
She's from Somalia and has a lovely Arabic name.  But, "I do not speak Arabic," she says.  She calls your phone so you have one another's numbers.
What you know: 
  • you must wait for the police or go together to the traffic department
  • you must do this immediately
  • you must obtain paperwork from the traffic department
  • if you wait long enough the police will come
It's not an unavoidable, necessary lifetime rite of passage like puberty, gray hair or wrinkles.  Being in a car accident in Doha is an event more like appendicitis, gall stones or divorce - something that can happen (or not, if you're lucky).  It's the car that swerves into your lane and stops, the SUV riding your bumper, little Toyota truck in front of you loaded with unsecured rebar and 2x4s.  It's a degree earned in spite; merit achieved contrary to your efforts.
little truck, loaded with stuff
You call Bob, talk to Ben (who has a Master's degree in Doha Car Accidents), dial the rental car place, check your facebook.  (Just kidding about that last one.)
Standing beside you, Somalia smiles, listens, nods.
Two white-shirt wearing police officers arrive in a blue and white cruiser.  Policeman #1 motions to the traffic and construction.  "You must move.  Go to police station."  He rattles instructions to Somalia in Arabic.  "You follow her," he says.  He points to Somalia.
I hesitate - she doesn't speak Arabic - but Somalia is already in her car and White Shirt motions frantically for you to go too.
You dip into a gravel gap so Somalia can take the lead.  You pull into traffic behind her.  Cars part like Moses and the Red Sea as she passes you slowly, driving in the middle of the road.  She rotates toward the red and white fence, misses it, jerks the wheel and arcs across the street.  Speeding up, she takes a roundabout in a wide three-lane circle, swerves around a corner, jumps a curb.  Something bright falls off her car.
You follow at a safe distance as Somalia sweeps wildly through traffic for three heart stopping minutes. She reaches a red light, three full lanes braked 10 cars back.  She slams into a taxi, causing it to hurtle into a third car.  Her airbag deploys.  There is smoke.
You park in the street, rush to Somalia's car.  Her seat is pressed back and she is near laying down, both hands over her face.  She's crying, but physically seems okay.  A big, burly man in a long white gallabea-like robe and yellow construction vest speaks reassuring words to her in Arabic.  He's from Sudan.
"She doesn't speak Arabic," you say.
"You know her?"
"Five minutes ago, she hit me too."
He laughs.
Yes, of course - it's not funny.  But no one in any of the cars is hurt.  So, it's okay: he laughs, you laugh.
Three green ambulances arrive.  Somalia is lifted onto a gurney and carried away. You do not see her again.
Official red suburbans and blue and white vans create a no-pass zone around the accident site.  Two dark uniformed policemen tap noses in the traditional greeting.  A white-shirt wearing officer writes driver's license, plate and phone numbers on a plain sheet of paper.  You give your numbers in Arabic.
White shirt pauses over the page, as if matching cars to information.  He turns to you, says, "Why are you here?"
Sudan intervenes to explain your presence in Arabic in a jolly, storytelling manner.  White shirt presses his hat back, rolls his eyes, shakes his head.
The next day you incorrectly visit the Immigration Office, Passport Bureau and Traffic Headquarters before landing at the correct location:  a small, single story building behind the Main Traffic Department.  Here, there is plenty of parking and a line of friendly officials available to help you.  To facilitate the process, at Ben's suggestion, you've written "My Side of the Story" in Arabic.  You give the handwritten essay to an agent who reads it without comment.
"What happened" in Arabic
(Please ignore errors, just like you did here.)
The official types on his computer.  Presses a button.  Gives you a crisp, unbound two page Police Report:  your graduation papers.
Mabrook!  Congratulations!  You pass.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Where Cranes Fly (So Much Construction!)

Cranes Fly Over Doha

All of Doha is under construction.
Roads queue through colorful barrier tunnels.  Highway lanes end without warning.  Streets run out and walls rise up.  Drivers marooned by dead end highways cruise through empty lots and back up over curbs.
colorful construction barrier
The always busy Corniche is a one-lane forever blocked thoroughfare - on both sides of the street.  Roundabouts are mountains of gravel, dug out to make way for 21st century stop lights.  A literal maze of fences circles Zig-Zag Tower, the Pearl and Lagoona Mall under signs announcing Doha's (one day soon-ish) first railway system.
Trucks rumble back to back, bumper to bumper, dwarfing the constant stream of vans, buses, sedans and road-clogging rainbow of SUVs.
Scaffolding marches across the horizon.  Stairs rise to nowhere.  A shortcut is never shorter than sticking with the snarl of traffic because everywhere everywhere
there is construction.
Rumbling, rattling, clanking, clattering, rasping, beeping, whining, grating, grinding.
Above, below, beneath, beside…mounds of rock, cranes, backhoes, dump trucks, men in boots, masks, helmets, khaki pants and safety vests wave flags, wield rope, shovels, hosing, drills.  Yellow sparkles dance from open walled high rises as laborers weld pipe, mold steel, place metal.  Street workers sweep dust off new grass, fill buckets, scrape rock into high sandy piles and rain water over everything.
watch out for truck coming up very soon...
A noisome bouquet of engine fumes, exhaust and bitter gasoline fills my nose, coats my tongue, stings my eyes, makes me sneeze.
Heat shimmers over mounds of brick, dry dirt, hot asphalt and moist, newly poured, green-making earth.  Hot air has a smell:  it's sweat, smoke, burning rubber, an over cooked old food lunch.
I wash my face and the towel stains brown.  A scabby heat and dirt fueled rash stings the back of my neck.  My bare feet leave charcoal prints in the shower.
A construction wall surrounds massive, busy, populated Education City.  Now just two narrow, single-lane entrances are open to students, faculty, staff, employees and guests to Georgetown University, Weil Cornell Medical Center, Virginia Commonwealth, Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern, Qatar Foundation and many other offices. The first hour and a half on a new project is spent discussing how to access facilities when a coworker is stranded…because interim transit system buses don't - ever - arrive.
Life (work, school, getting-from-here-to-there and other forms of necessary busy-ness) in speeding-to-modern Doha is, ironically, slow-going.  But not as slow as it will be very, very soon…when the summer/Ramadan exodus of locals and expats return from…otherfound places where people walk on sidewalks, traffic moves steadily along the highway and buses appear as scheduled.  Where crickets chirp in the quiet evenings, trees whisper under the silent moon, lovers walk hand in hand -
And cranes are birds.
early construction moon rise over Beverly Hills subdivision

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Country on Holiday

Egypt's pyramids from 30,000 feet
the closest we'll get for a while :(
Norway, Denmark, Madrid, Prague, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Vienna, Athens, Venice, Florence, Pisa…Kansas City, St. Paul, Doha.  Bob's coworkers are all over the planet this week, in honor of the three day end of Ramadan festival called Eid, when most of Qatar is on holiday.
approaching Venice's St. Mark's Square by water taxi
(this is not St. Mark's)
it appears we need to do more research on the history of Venice…
And by "most of," I mean, of course: "all."  For the 30 days of Ramadan, Qatari government (and some private companies) are required by law to modify business hours so that an employee's work day ends by 1:30pm.  Hotel restaurants drape windows and offer a back entrance to non-Muslim/non-fasters.  Life slows.  But:  workers still work.  A guy can get his hair cut, take in a movie, eat out.
up for a "romantic" gondola ride in Venice?
so many people, so many boats!
Now that Ramadan is over, the country closes up altogether for three fun-filled days: shops, salons, malls, theaters, construction, travel, government and private offices.  Bulldozers rest, cranes shut down, trucks stop rumbling.  Except for petrol stations and the Carrefour (the Middle East/European version of Walmart - scaled back and with way less parking)…Qatar is especially quiet this week.
Crooked tower
NCR forthcoming
(Non Compliant Report: joke for Bob's coworkers)
Like most western workers Bob receives time off in earned increments with sick, "mental health" (ie, gotta-get-outta-here) breaks and holidays.  Stir in pre-negotiated unlimited exit visas, proximity to some of the world's most fantastic places - and three days free means...
dinner in Venice

Friday, August 2, 2013

Qatar's Water: is it safe to drink?

rooftop water tanks, business location overlooking Doha's West Bay
A 60-year old maintenance worker was cleaning inside a neighborhood water tank.  The ladder broke.  He fell:
"A dead body was found…inside a water reservoir at a residential building in Al Wakra, after residents there complained that murky water had been flowing through their faucets for at least two days…The water was smelling very bad - So bad that the smell spread throughout my house..."
Qatar is a peninsula country, surrounded by water.  Lots and lots of water.  Yet clean, sweet, drinkable liquid is a precious commodity - for three primary reasons:
Location:  the country inhabits a desert near the hottest part of the planet.
Moisture:  Rain is rare.
Content:  the sea surrounding the country is very, very salty.
Salty enough to:
  • burn eyes
  • dry hair and skin
  • clean wounds
  • pickle a cucumber, season a kiss

dhow: pearling vessel

Once upon a time, Qataris were Bedouins who herded camels and goats in the desert.  They subsisted on camel milk, dates, imported rice and locally caught fish.  Fresh, sweet drinking water was shipped into the country from Bahrain.  Seafarers rationed potable liquid for long journeys into the Gulf, where pearl divers leapt into the sea as many as 100 times a day for months at a time.  The briny water burned hair off heads, dried skin, carved wrinkles into sun browned faces.

Life was hard.

Then one day there was oil and gas.
And people.  From the West, East and everywhere in between.  With cars that needed roads to link neighborhoods full of buildings with kitchens, bathrooms, gardens, pets and vegetation.
All of which needed water.
It was quickly determined that the odd well, aquifer or country-to-country dhow service wouldn't satisfy the needs of the rapidly growing community.  A water treatment system was required.
Here's what I've learned about Qatar's water production and distribution system:
The country continues to rely on groundwater as well as recycled water (ie, "treated sewage effluent") for irrigation and other purposes, but desalinated (a process whereby the salt is removed from sea water) liquid is its primary resource for drinking water.  Since 1995 (when, coincidentally, former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani succeeded to power, expat population expanded and urbanization increased) use of desalinated water has tripled in Qatar.[1]
Desalination plants usually do not treat raw sea water, but "brackish water" or water drawn from alluvial wells near the sea.  It's lower in sodium content, has less organics, and is thus easier to treat.
- Curtis Gentile
In 1953, Qatar had five sea water desalination plants with a total capacity of 150040 gallons/day.  Today's plants have a capacity exceeding 327 MIGD ("million imperial gallons per day").[2]  The desalination plant at Ras Laffan opened 31 May 2011 and uses a "multi-effect distillation/thermal vapour compression" system.[3]  At the time it was the largest power and water plant in the country.
Doha's drinking water is primarily a bi-product of the gas-to-liquid conversion process at Ras Laffan.  Condensing the gas generates lots of heat, and raw sea water is pumped to the reactors for cooling. The sea water evaporates (boils) in the process, and the condensate is captured, treated and pumped to Doha through multiple water mains.  Pretty ingenious, huh?
- Curtis Gentile
In May 2013, development of a new sea water distillation plant began in Ras Abu Fontas.  The plant will produce 36 MIGD of desalinated water and is expected to open in 2015.[4]
Today Qatar rides the fast track to modern.  That means a place that little more than 60 years ago had one main street market now boasts high rise office buildings, apartments, villas, tennis courts and spas.  Residents live comfortably with electricity, cell phones, malls, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, flushing toilets, hot and cold running water, ice cream, lush gardens, a zoo and a water park.  Even the most rural desert bound tent dweller has a generator, internet and cable tv - with boxy air conditioners affixed to the canvas-like fabric.

In some areas, pipes carry fresh water from water treatment facilities to homes and businesses while a separate system of pipes carries waste away.  In locations where services haven't yet reached the neighborhood, a gravity fueled water tank provides potable water.  A convoy of trucks fill tanks with clean, sweet drinkable stuff while a separate system of trucks empty underground tanks of waste.

Sewage is stored temporarily in underground tanks before being sucked out with a Vac Truck.  Qatar does have waste water treatment plants. They don't yet have a comprehensive collection system (sewers, manholes, pump stations) to get the sewage there.
- Curtis Gentile
In 2011, Kahramaa (the country's water company) claimed that "Qatar may have the highest rate of water consumption in the world per capita, at 430 liters a day." [5]  Two years later, in January 2013, Qatar's Supreme Council of Health completed a study involving 3500 samples of Qatar's tap water.  With only traces of non-toxic dust and dirt the country's water was determined safe to drink. [6]
Distribution systems are often the source of water quality problems anywhere (not just Qatar). Qatar's water seems more susceptible to quality problems due to the many relatively small storage tanks located on the roofs of houses and buildings (baking in the sun).
- Curtis Gentile
While Bob and I do drink bottled water, we also fill mugs at the park, tip containers (glasses, coffee pots and ice cube trays) under the faucet and cup hands in the sink.  Generally speaking, Qatar's water is sweet, clean and safe to drink.
Unless it's brown and smells bad.  Then we don't drink it.
Our Cabinet Stash


Curtis and Mary Gentile
Curtis Gentile is a civil engineer with many years' experience in management of  projects involving water and power supply, waste water, storm water, flood management and more in a wide variety of locations, including Doha, Qatar.

Photo: the fabulous Curtis and Mary Gentile in Doha

Other sources:
1 - Qatar is Booming, "Qatar to launch series of water saving initiatives," [], July 2103
3 -, "MED/TVC desalination plant inaugurated in Qatar," [], July 2013 
4 - Qatar Electricity and Water Company, "New Ras Abu Fontas Plant to Open in 2015," [], July 2013
5 - Omarsc, "Qatar's water usage 'highest in the world' per capita," [], July 2013 
6 - Shabinakhatri, "Despite new findings emphasizing quality of Qatar's tap water, debate continues," [], July 2013