The car in front of me drives through the intersection and stops. The lane ahead is full.
I pause at the crossroad, brake at the white line. The car in the lane beside me stops too.
We wait 1-2-3 beats before our light turns red.
We don't honk, gesture, slap the steering wheel. We don't accelerate into the space between two vehicles, block the intersection or flash our headlights. We don't hop the curb. We don't drive on the sidewalk or median. We don't get out of our cars and wave our arms at the injustice of this forced lesson in patience.
Lights change on the right, left, in front. Cars, trucks, vans, SUVs take turns moving through the intersection. Merging happens: first one, then the next, then another, vehicles unite in moving traffic, mixing seamlessly like the teeth in a zipper.
A song plays on the radio, something about love, peace, God. There are plenty of other programs to choose from: rap, metal, opera, talk shows, gossip, news, politics, entertainment - but I like this music. The car's heater hums. The clear blue winter sky is framed by ice defrosting on my windshield. The temperature gauge reads 15F (-9.44C). My hands are toasty in heavy cotton gloves, but the tip of my nose is cold.
My light turns green. The lane ahead of me is empty. I move my foot to the gas pedal. The car beside me advances; I accelerate too.
Family night in America
It seems that life in America is easy as long as you follow the rules: stop at the red light, don't block the intersection, wait your turn, pay your bills, don't steal, respect others' rights, keep your hands to yourself.
Here, public restrooms (almost) always have toilet paper. (Sometimes there are second and third rolls and extra under the sink too.)
In My America, there are winter trees, crispy leaves, flowers, yards and neighborhoods without walls.
There are sidewalks where people walk, jog. Strangers who smile, say, "hi!" and "I hear we might get snow" and "did you know you dropped something?"
Medicines are available for purchase in the local grocery. Cashiers, salesmen and women and service people everywhere smile, say, "How can I help you?" And mean it.
In My America there are people of every color, shape, size, religion, culture, disposition. There are agreers and disagreers, saints and sinners, lovers and haters. Bars in airports and movie theaters, bibles in motels and gas stations. Cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, non-denominational meeting halls. Men and women, men and men, women and women. Martha Stewart, Howard Stern, X Factor, XXX, Disney Channel. CNN, ABC, Fox News; rich, poor, haves, have nots, hard workers, hardly working-ers, Republicans and Democrats.
My America is a mish mash of people, ideologies, lifestyles, attitudes. It snows in My America. People get the flu, bump heads, disagree and sometimes, even, run red lights.
"…'mixing' and 'interaction' happened everywhere during the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him): in the mosque, in the street, in the market, and everywhere. The idea of segregation of sexes was simply not there…"
Tucked into my aisle seat, I watched passengers board. It was my first time to sit in the center three seat section on a long haul flight. Away from the cozy hollow near the plane's wall. Exposed in the middle, without the window's comforting light. Who would sit beside me this time?
first trip to Doha, Dec 2011
Katie, Kimber, me, cozy window row
Usually my long haul seatmates are readers, sleepers, armrest sharers. I've also sat beside the mother with two fidgety babies; the girl who talked for hours in a high pitched screech. The woman who put up a passive aggressive, across the world battle for the armrest; the smelly man. There have been spillers, elbowers, climbers, wigglers, talkers, borrowers, snorers, eaters.
I'd never refused to sit beside anyone or had someone refuse to sit by me. Until now.
An acrid scent, a man in the aisle. He raised his arms to stow his luggage and a heavy body odor smell filled the space. He glanced at his ticket - and took the middle seat in the row behind me. I adjusted my air vent.
A small man with a long, dark Islamic style beard and white prayer cap appeared in the opposite aisle. He wore slacks, a vest. His bone structure, dark skin and hair identified him as Arab. He glanced at me, stowed his bag and slipped into the aisle seat.
"Trim your moustaches & let your beards grow…"
a narration of the Holy Prophet (saww) by Al-Saduq
"Sir, your seat is in the middle," said the attendant. She pointed to the spot next to me. "You'll need to move."
Air jets hummed, engines rumbled. The plane vibrated, hissed, squealed and clanked. The man said something I couldn't hear. The attendant glanced at me, nodded, "but you're in someone else's seat."
He stared straight ahead. After a moment, he slid into the space beside me.
Some Muslim men do not want to shake a woman's hand.
-Asian Muslim woman living in Qatar
I tugged at the vee in my long sleeved blouse, pulled my jacked closed. My elbow grazed my seatmate's arm. He didn't flinch.
This could be my longest 17-hour flight yet.
"A woman should not look at or speak first to a man. (But it's probably different for you because you're from the West.)"
-Indonesian Muslim woman living in Qatar
A young, jeans-wearing Arab man plopped into the empty aisle seat in my row. My neighbor turned and spoke quietly. I watched the young man's face as his eyes widened. He glanced at me, looked away, nodded.
My seatmate crossed in front of the young man, motioned him forward. Animated conversation, gesturing - and the two men disappeared.
Who decides the extent to which a woman covers? She does.
-Qatari Muslim woman
A toddler peeked over the headrest in front of me. A baby cried. Overhead compartments snapped shut. Window blinds slid open and closed strobing sun and shade. The attendant offered me a pre-flight jolly-rancher style hard candy. I popped the tangy sweet into my mouth.
My seat jiggled. The young, jeans-wearing Arab plopped into the space beside me. I peeked around him. A Western attired Asian man now occupied the aisle seat.
The young man's name was Sultan. He was 26, from Saudi Arabia and this was his first trip to America. He was headed to a 4 month, live-in language program in California to learn English, after which he'd return to Saudi Arabia for college.
"It is important to know English," he said. "For business."
"At Hajj men and women pray side by side."
-American Muslim woman
Over the next 17 hours, Sultan and I were joined at the armrest. Our shoulders touched. My shoes shifted into his space. His pillow landed in mine. He jolted in his sleep and elbowed me in the head. I dropped a roll in his lap. We shared a pen.
But when he needed to stand, he climbed into the aisle away from me, even when it meant straddling a sleeping passenger.
"…Islam forbids mixing between the sexes that might provide even the remotest possibility of temptation…"
I watched 5 full length movies, an entire season of Big Bang Theory and multiple episodes of Modern Family. I ate two shareable sized bags of M&Ms all by myself and asked the attendant for water so often she brought me a liter sized bottle.
Many meals, snacks, clogged sinuses, sore knees, trips to the bathroom and kitchen later, I helped Sultan complete his landing card.
"What should I see in America?" he asked. "Los Angeles? Las Vegas? The beach?"
Cars stream across the road in front of me - traffic moves just one direction at a time in Doha. When the light facing the flood turns red, a wall of wheels forms a blockade across the intersection. Now the light is green for those headed left into the barricade. Vehicles nose forward, plugging holes in the sea of traffic. The light changes again - and those headed the other direction surge into the morass. The road is now flush with vans, trucks, sedans, SUVs and exhaust saturated air. An orchestra of honking horns, squealing brakes, humming engines serenades idling travelers.
At the heart of the clog, an SUV's door opens and a man in white emerges. He adjusts his headdress, smooths his dishdasha and steps boldly into the swell of bleating steel. He points and cars back up. He waves and cars move forward. His raised arms and billowing robe are shadowed by the sun shining through the passage he creates. He reenters his SUV and disappears into the gap, trailing cars like animals in the Ark.
My light turns green and I slide through the wall too.
Bird Market, Souq Waqif
"What, me escape? Nyahh."
"There are no wild parrots in Doha," says a shopkeeper at the bird market. But I've seen them up close: long green tail feathers, round heads, orange beaks.
Evening near Bob's job site; me and my camera comb the darkening sky. The birds travel at dusk, headed toward the souq. Dots on the horizon, flapping wings. Feathers pull close to strong bodies as birds swoop high and fast over the ground. First a small flock speeds over the sandy lot. A set of two follow, then three together and one alone. Like a gang protecting the slower members, a final company zips by. I blink and they're gone.
Too fast for pictures.
Katie and Kimber outside Museum of Islamic Art, 2012
not related to anything in this blog, I just like this pic
The musky smell of Bukhoor wraps me in a cloud of sweet. My hostess heats coals in the chalice-like device. She adds a perfume square and a dark mist rises from the vessel's foil lined hollow. She places the receptacle under my shirt, holds it there until smoke drifts through the fibers of my blouse. She removes the chalice, drawing a fragrant circle around me, over my hair.
It's the traditional goodbye after my first ever visit to a Qatari home. Here there is sweet tea in tiny porcelain cups, smooth mango juice, spinach in pita, Omani candy and tasty Arabic cookies. There is beauty: marble stairs, wood covered columns, crystal chandeliers, down comforters, fiber wall hangings. There is home: shoes at the door, pillows on the floor, phone calls, family photos, great conversation and children who greet strangers with kisses.
sitting area at Weil Cornell Medical College, Doha
Behind the wall, in the front yard of the beautifully appointed, villa style home, there is a garden, a bamboo majlis, an outdoor bathroom - and a multi-story chicken coop for roosters and hens. There is a Little Tykes slide and swing set for the children. There is a special place for grandma to sit while she feeds the birds and watches her babies play.
clouds in Doha: rare sight
On the floor, knees crossed and elbows down, I play with the kids in a Qatari home. Six year old Maryam draws a feel-insaan (elephant person) and the Arabic alphabet in pencil. She is learning to read and write Arabic, like me, in the same way an American kindergartener studies the ABC's.
All around us, ladies chatter. Tiny porcelain cups clink against plates. On a wall, an Arab game show broadcasts on a wide, flat screen tv.
Maryam sits tall, says in perfect English, "I will test you." She holds the paper, drawing side to her chest, says, "Say the letters."
I neglect to include kaaf. When it's her turn, she forgets Saad, Daad.
"Arabic is called the language of Daad," says Maryam's mother. "Because no other language anywhere in the world has this letter."
Maryam and I practice until we each recite the letters perfectly.
It's gymnastics with water and we've got ringside seats, no driving involved. Ahhhhhh
But most of the time life in Doha is: Fender kissing, headlight flashing Land Cruisers driven by men in white headdress (blinking lights is Qatari dialect for "please get out of my way." The less polite version involves the possibility of burned rubber and smashed bumpers - but most expats just…move).
Everyday Doha is helicopters thrumming the air in search of the worst traffic tie-ups. Motorcycles rumbling through haphazard spaces between vehicles. Taxis hopping sidewalks. Blocked intersections. Construction. It's also three hour wash cycles. Bananas that shift from green to brown overnight. Arabic pronunciation mistakes:
Rajool means man; rijil means leg: "The leg said…"
Qalb means heart and kelb means dog: "My husband works at the Dog of Doha project."
Namat means grown but namoot means die: "My children are namat."
For me, everyday Doha means 3-5 hours in the car. True, a portion of that time involves taking Bob to work and picking him up (in return for spousal access to Bob's company-provided vehicle).
at his desk 6 days/week
Bob worked 7 days in a row last week, adding up to 13 turns about the office by sleep-in day
This week I also work. Plus, there is running the Corniche, walking the Pearl, Arabic class, homework, reading, writing and staying up late to watch Conan O'Brien (he makes me laugh). There is church, missing our kids, email, skype, errands and lunch out.
Busy is our "Doha usual." Some weeks, like this one, are busier. Outtakes:
Childhood in Qatar
Fanar Family Majlis* presentation about childhood games in pre-oil Qatar, including an early Qatari activity for boys called, Bo Sbeit, are you alive or dead?:
Player #1 lays face down. Other players shovel sand over the back of first player's head calling out, "Bo Sbeit, are you alive or dead?" If there is a response, more sand is shoveled and the call repeated, until such time that player #1 no longer responds. Other players stop ladling and wait for buried player #1 to emerge (which, en sha'allah he does). Everyone gets a turn. Boy buried longest (without, it is presumed, spoiling the game by going namoot, ie, dying) wins.
This game offered practice for pearling wherein divers descended to great depths with only a nose clip and lung capacity to keep them from drowning. It was vital that young boys destined for a career at sea develop the ability to hold their breath for long periods.
According to the presenter, today's Qatari boys pretty much spend their extracurricular time playing computer games.
Basketball in a Skirt - Qatari high school PE class.
I join 14 sixteen and seventeen year old girls wearing ankle length shift style uniforms and dress shoes as they line up in a tile floored gym. We do neck stretches and arm circles. We place hands on hips and bend to the side. We touch our toes (well - I touch mine). We dribble (low air) balls in a small square. We toss/kick/roll balls to the next girl in line.
Teacher is a young, energetic Egyptian. She wears a purple sweat suit with pink running shoes, speaks very little English - and it is her very first day at the school. She is Middle Eastern hospitable but curious about my participation in her class since my mission concerns language - Arabic for me, English for the students. (The "why" is never made clear.) Later, we chat in Arabic and share pictures from our phones - her beautiful 18 month old daughter, my babies and grandbabies.
Children's Books in Qatar
Fran Gillespie has lived in Qatar for nearly 30 years. She's a former teacher, freelance writer and journalist who's published hundreds of articles about the country. This week her first books for young children, published locally, are released. This is a new endeavor for Qatar and a Very Big Deal! Bob and I spend extra time lost in construction detours so that I might own sets of Fran's wonderful books in English and Arabic. Click here to read more about Fran's books.
Park Bazaar/Flea Market
On the grounds of the Museum of Islamic Art, locals and others gather under tents to sell stuff. There are garage-sale-like tables stacked with Michael Crichton novels; craft booths with quilted tee shirts and stained glass items; shop tents merchandising pashminas and jellabias (a pretty abaya-but-not-an-abaya-style gown worn for dress up occasions). Children's clothes, games, toys - corn dogs and coca cola.
Museum of Islamic Art designed by architect I.M. Pei
It's nifty to watch the shadows play
I don't buy anything. I do: wander the grounds and take pictures.
This week's wandering includes spousal together time, language practice, pearl shopping with an energetic, continent hopping friend and coffee with a world travelling, couch surfing American who speaks three languages (not counting Arabic which she's studying). She not only knows Qataris, but has attended weddings and other events - and once was flagged down on the highway by a leather mask wearing Qatari woman who needed a ride home.
Of course, a souk visit isn't complete without a plateful of Halloumi (FOR BERNIE, who asked):
THIS is Halloumi cheese, fried to a krispy, salty wondrousness.
Makes your mouth water, dunnit?
THIS is what you do with Halloumi, just before…
THIS. Wrap 'er up and eat.
We live in a resort with weekly cleaning, laundry service, Chocolate Bar downstairs and terrace overlooking world class athletic events (see above). But it's not all fun and games. (Bob worked 13 days in a row recently, and…) it took hours of fume-filled scrubbing to transform our cushy resort shower from housekeeping's clean-enough:
When a toxic odor invades our building, maintenance says, "Something died in here." Drains are inspected. Ladders placed. Trash receptacles emptied. Toilets flushed and sinks filled. Fans blow stench through open windows. Holes are cut into ceilings.
After all the cutting, moving, drilling, hammering, we pour water into "p" traps - and the smell goes away. Huh.
This curious competition sponsored by Red Bull involves teams of people and weeks of effort to manufacture "flying machines" - which are then flown off a short pier straight into the water. Longest airborne creation wins.
It is presumed that pilots are namat, but I'm not completely sure about that. Every machine definitely ends up - namoot.
*Majlis: special meeting place where single gender groups chat, eat, drink, hang. Fanar's "family majlis" is open to both men and women; programs are presented by men.
Children's literacy is an important topic in Qatar. Efforts to increase kids' reading skills include mobile and school libraries, contests, clubs, children's television programs. But - not a lot of local interest books.
According to a survey on reading habits in the Arab world conducted by Yahoo! Maktoob Research in 2011, almost 30% of people below 25 years in the Arab world never read. People aged between 46 and 50 were the most frequent readers, followed by those aged between 36 and 45, which makes up 25% of the population. The youth read less than any other segment of society…
Limited quantities of popular American children's books are available for purchase in Qatar. But children's books about Qatar for Qatar? Rare. Until now. I'm thrilled to own both English and Arabic language sets of a wonderful new series of books by Frances Gillespie:
Qatar Nature Explorer
by Frances Gillespie
"There are about twelve species of dragonfly in Qatar. They and their smaller relatives, the damselflies, are fierce hunters. Both have bright colours and similarly shaped bodies, but you can easily tell them apart…" (ages 6+)
From Insects and Arachnids of Qatar, by Frances Gillespie
Sets in English and Arabic include six hardcover editions: Birds of Qatar, Insects and Arachnids of Qatar, Mammals of Qatar, Plants of Qatar, Reptiles and Amphibians of Qatar, Sea and Shore Life of Qatar. Copies of Qatar Nature Explorer will soon be available for purchase in bookstores throughout the country and online. To acquire your own copies now, contact Fran by email: firstname.lastname@example.org (email address provided with permission).
I'm also a happy owner of this gem written for the Middle School aged crowd:
Hidden in the Sands, Uncovering Qatar's Past
by Frances Gillespie and Faisal Abdulla al-Naimi
"The first book of its kind to be published for a general readership from youngsters upwards, Hidden in the Sands: Uncovering Qatar's Past is the fascinating, fun and educational story of Qatar's heritage and the exciting discoveries being made by archaeologists…" (ages 11+)
Frances Gillespie is a British writer and journalist and has lived in Qatar for nearly 30 years. Before moving to Doha, she taught English in England and Nigeria. She's a former Chairman of the Qatar Natural History Group and has travelled from one end of the country to the other. Fran has written hundreds of articles for local and international publications in many countries, including Qatar, USA, UK, UAE, Lebanon. Her best-selling books, Discovering Qatar and Common Birds of Qatar are well known in Qatar.
"You're so cute," says a student. "Are you Muslim?"
I shake my head. "I'm Christian."
"Oh," she says, nodding. "Not Muslim - yet."
Four walls, windows, a smart board, white board, projector. Student desks in five rows, four deep. Dark eyed teenage girls in ankle length, shift style uniforms. I sit on the teacher's table facing the class, legs dangling.
At the Madrasa al Thanawiya al Binaat (secondary school for girls) I'd already participated in a science lab (broadly speaking), audited science and English classes and sipped tea in the teachers' lounge. I'd wandered the building with a special education instructor and chatted boardroom style with group after group of high school aged local girls.
Today I would be a substitute Homeroom and Physical Education teacher (apologies to actual US PE teacher, Bernie). Sort of.
Some of my Arabic children's books
Qataris are a minority in Qatar and Arabic is not spoken on the streets or in the shops. The majority of expats don't study the language because there's so little opportunity to use it. I persist because I like the language and people (and perhaps also out of a compulsive need to finish-what-I-start, no matter how impossible seeming). I supplement my studies by reading Arabic children's books, learning Arabic nursery rhymes, speaking with Arabs (when found) - and visiting Qatari government schools (where allowed).
The gym is closed in the (real) teacher's absence and there are no curriculum notes.
"Speak English with them," says the principal. She smiles. "Make them bi-lingual."
Oh, right. Mafee mushkilla. No problem.
My escort is a sunny and enthusiastic Egyptian English teacher wearing bright blue eye shadow. "You girls," she says, in Arabic. "You are all so sleepy." She moves to the closed classroom door, pounds on it with both fists. "You are like, 'let me out of here'!"
Laughter. Students sit higher in seats.
"What sports do you play?" I ask. L'boon ay riyada hini?
"Basketball, volleyball, football…" Smiles. "With the feet. Not the American football with hands."
"Do you run?" I ask.
"Of course. We wear long pants and tee shirts and run in the gym."
"People don't run on the street in Qatar," I say.
"No, but you can walk at the Mall or Aspire Parkand you can run around the Pearl to the naked beach."
The young Qatari shakes her head. Not funny. "We call it that because people wear very few clothes there."
Conversation is a rapid-fire mix of standard and dialectical Arabic and colloquial English.
They want to know:
Do you live in a compound in America? Do students wear uniforms to school? Do you have pets? How old are your children? Are they boys or girls? Tell me about your grandchildren? Have you been to Boston? Will you go shopping at Villagio with me? Do you know Adele? (Sings:) "Someone Like You…"
I smile. "Will you teach me a Qatari children's song?"
A student writes:
"mama jabat baby
baby helloo sagheer"
"It says, Mama comes with a baby; baby is small and cute. We sing this when a new baby comes home."
"Do you have rhymes? Silly fun songs?"
Of course! "Twinkle, twinkle little star…Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall...Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear…"
"Our nursery rhymes are from America, Lebanon, Egypt and other countries," a student says.
"And television," says Teacher.
The students sing popular American and Arabic music in angelic soprano and rich alto voices, complete with Middle Eastern trills and runs.
I offer Baa Baa Black Sheep, Have You Any Wool…?
The bell rings and Teacher and I sing (although I only know the first part) a popular Egyptian children's song: