Friday, January 31, 2014

Tea and Arabic

Hospitality Tea with Mary Anne at Fanar
March 2013
I'd passed her desk three times - as I skipped from administrative offices, to the bathroom, to class, to offices.  Hurry, hurry, rush, rush.  "Salaam alaykum!" I said.  Peace be with you.
"Wo alaykum salaam," she said.  And with you, peace.  She was covered from head to toe with a dark veil over her face.  She held out a hand as if to say, Stop, wait.
I am fluent in Arabic - as long as dialogue is limited to:
Hi.  How are you?  I am good.  How do you say (English word)?  Where are you from?  Where is the bathroom?  Do you have it in red/black?  How much?  That's expensive!  I'm married.  My husband works (here/there/Heart of Doha).  I love you/him/her/them/it.  Yes/no/maybe.  Wow, that's a lot of cars/traffic!
I can also say:
  • "where" in Qatari, Egyptian and classical Arabic (wayn-fayn-ayna?)
  • please/thank you/excuse me/I don't understand
  • no problem/whatever

I can greet a man or a woman in Qatari dialect (Shlonich?  Shlonak?).  And, while I don't always remember the exact, proper response, I am ready to reply "things are good" (the only acceptable answer to "how are you?") in a variety of ways: bikheer/tammam/alhumduilallah/kwayiss.
Of course, my fluency is enhanced when the person I'm talking to: a) confines conversation to words I already understand; b) doesn't speak Arabic; c) doesn't respond.
"The Arabic language is beautiful and easy."
- Fanar Arabic book, level three, pg. 45
But that's just the spoken language.  Written Arabic is another thing altogether.
Subject, predicate, noun, verb, object - these are concepts that translate into English (sort of).  Rufa', mansoob, majroor, majzoom, moodahf wo moodahf ilee - these ideas are harder to reconcile with my current knowledge-on-tap.  Plus, in Arabic, there are words that change depending upon where they appear in the sentence (ma'raab) and those than keep the same form (mabnee) "no matter what."  There are singular, plural and dual tenses for - literally, it seems - everything; male and female adjective endings and those circle and dash-like symbols that appear above and below words.
Yeah, those little marks mean something.  Sometimes they mean everything.
Qatar's national language is Arabic but given the distorted expat to homeboy/girl ratio, English is more widely spoken.  This means that studying Arabic in Qatar today is much like attempting to learn Arabic in, say, New York, Kansas City or Sweden.
I speak Arabic for approximately two hours, twice a week.  In my class - which is conducted in Arabic.  And at Fanar - where kind ladies from a variety of places pause in the midst of their busy workday to wait patiently for the puddle in my head to form and output something response-worthy.  Every now and then I get it right.  But most days these wise, wonderful, patient women earn extra points toward heavenly rewards thanks to two hours, twice a week of, well…me.
The woman grasped my hand, pulled me close.  She flipped the veil over the back of her head.  "Anti heloo," she said.  You're sweet.  She smiled.  "But you must relax, slow down, sit."  She patted the chair beside her.  "Drink tea.  The language, it will come."
To pause the clock for tea while there are questions to ask, books to read, places to go, things to do, language to learn?  This is a lesson too: in patience, tolerance, culture, understanding…and, it seems, Arabic.
You must feel the language.
- Arabic teacher

Friday, January 24, 2014

My First Qatari Wedding

a sweet little girl, henna, a shiny, sequined dress
"The Arab dance is like walking," said my new friend, when there was a break in the music.  She raised an arm shoulder high, wrist loose, fingers down, lifted a foot, took a step.  "You see? Easy."
In the middle of the room, ladies danced on a raised platform.  Like a model's runway it spanned nearly the length of the space, meeting the stage in the middle to form a "T."  On the stage high above the platform was a long white divan covered in luxurious white, gold and red pillows, flanked by columns and surrounded by roses.  Later, the bride would sit here.  Much later, the groom would join her.
Hips rolled, shoulders dipped, arms moved like ribbons on boneless bodies as ladies slowly circled the runway.  Thrumming, drumming, sinuous, sensual Middle Eastern style music resounded through speakers from the live (male) band tucked into a hidden space behind the stage.
Maybe walking was the first dancing lesson, but the rest of it?  Definitely.  Not.  Easy.
Some women wear abaya and sheyla to marriage events, but
traditionally each celebration is an opportunity to see and be seen
guests dress up hair, makeup, clothing
photo above offers a Very Conservative Sample of Qatari wedding attire
The hall was wide, bright and surrounded by a flowing white curtain to protect ladies' privacy.  Crystal chandeliers hung from a sky high ceiling.  Attendants in brilliant white and gold served sweets on luminous gilded trays.  Round tables decorated in white and yellow featured tall candles and vibrant bouquets of rich red roses.
Lines of velvet covered chairs flanked the runway.  Grandmothers, mothers, aunts, matchmakers and other relatives occupied these seats.  To enjoy the dancing - but also to consider the young, unmarried guests as prospective wives for sons, nephews, brothers.  Velvet seat relatives ascended the runway with stacks of QR notes which they shuffled into the air above a dancer's head.  Money poured like rain over the platform.
Special servers collected the notes in brown bags.  The money would go to the band.
my beautiful friends, Nancy and Ania
world travelling, multi-lingual mother-daughter pair
masha allah!
Here's what I've learned about Qatari weddings (from presentations at Fanar and personal experience):
There is no celibacy in Islam
Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)
Choosing a Partner
Most Qatari marriages today - nearly 100% - are arranged, preferably within the same tribe.  This is to keep money and property in-house, but also to protect the bride.  It's easier to know a man's true character when he's already a member of the same family.  Traditionally young couples spend the first week after the wedding with the bride's mother before moving into a space in the groom's family home.  Nowadays many young couples eventually move into their own, separate, house.
As Qatari life adjusts to meet demands of a changing world, more young men and women meet and choose prospective partners themselves - through work, school, friendships.  The arrangement process, however, remains the same - mothers, aunts and matchmakers consult, father's/guardian's approval is obtained.  The couple talk on the phone, email, meet (always with family members present) and the young man is allowed to see the young woman uncovered in a chaperoned setting.  If everyone agrees - including the young couple, each of whom may decline - the contract is signed.
The Contract
This is when marriage conditions are spelled out - like the bride's desire to finish school, work after marriage or be the only wife.  Potential disagreements are aired, discussed, agreed upon - like a pre-marriage counselling session with legal implications.
The mahr - a kind of dowry - is offered by the groom's family.  The money is a gift to the bride payable before the wedding - and usually (in Qatari society) spent on the wedding.
After the contract is signed, the man and woman are officially married.  Consummation of the union does not occur until after the actual ceremony.  A change of heart after the contract is signed requires a divorce.
The engagement may last days, months or even (in the case of children promised to one another, for example) years.  There is an announcement party where the couple's intention is declared and sometimes a celebration called walimah, a banquet specifically for the families to become acquainted.
There are two weddings: one for the women and one for the men.  Traditionally, the men's party takes place in tents outside of town and involves sword dancing, nose tapping, food and good hospitality.  Generally, it is an open event and invitation is by word of mouth.  To learn more about Qatari weddings from a man's perspective, read this wonderful 5-part account by Qatari blogger Osama Alassiry.
The ladies' wedding begins with the engagement party and includes a henna night as well as the actual wedding.  All ladies' parties are private events, usually held in a closed hotel space.  Printed invitations are issued and phones and cameras are taken at the door.
Other Stuff
Qataris are known for their hospitality and a wedding celebration is the ultimate opportunity to honor one another with food, nonalcoholic beverages, sweets, perfume and other gifts.  The cost of a Qatari wedding today may exceed 1 million Qatari Riyal.  Both the bride's and groom's families contribute to expenses.
gift bags: so pretty!
inside gift bags: harakat!
(Qatari dialect for wow!)
Sometime after 10pm, attendants pulled back a curtain and the bride appeared under a white arch.  She wore a modern, glittering white gown with a wide skirt and train.  Gems in her dress reflected the silver jewels in her hair, ears and around her neck.
So lovely:  masha allah.
Sweet bukhoor wafted about the room with as the bride made slow progress toward the steps leading to the runway.  Lit candles glowed along the platform, marked the stage, shimmered at each table.
There was hugging and kissing and whirling clouds of money.  Professional photographers took photos and video.  Sweets were offered on golden trays by gold attired servers.  A female singer performed inside the hall - and money filled the air - 1, 5, 10QR notes and American bills too.
At an unseen signal sometime after 11pm, ladies donned abayas and sheylas.  Arch curtains opened and the groom appeared in dress robes and flanked by his father, other male relatives and three young boys with swords.  The boys performed a sword dance as the group moved slowly up the stairs, across the runway and toward the stage where the bride waited, hidden now behind a screen.
More hugging and kissing, photos, video and a hurricane of QR notes.  The groom's male relatives and friends (those not allowed to see the bride) left the room.  The screen was removed.  The bride stood.  The groom moved to stand beside her and his relatives circled the couple.  There was hugging and kissing, photos, video and more raining money.
The groom joined his bride on the divan.  They held hands as money swirled around them.
A fantastic buffet dinner was served after midnight.
pretty table display

Around 1am, servers returned with bukhoor and bottles of sweet perfume, signaling time for the bride and groom to depart.  Together the young couple stood, walked slowly hand in hand across the stage, down the runway, through the curtain and disappeared under the arch.
We took a turn on the runway after the party was over, walk-dancing from one end to the other, waving arms and swinging hips.
No one tossed money.  Masha allah!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Six Days in Doha with Chris

The Riding a Camel Pic
What if you had just a few days in a Middle Eastern country - where traffic buzzes the city like bees searching for a hive, winter means beach sun and flowers, strange things circle the sky and jumping off a pile of sand into another pile of sand is a national pastime?
a guy (it's always a guy), a parachute-like thing, a great big, round fan
Oh sure, you'd hang with your way cool 'rents
working out at the Singing Dunes
not hot, windy or dry enough for music this trip
great for running and climbing
top it off with a cold one
at the Inland Sea
You'd tour a mosque and cultural center, study customs and religion, watch as a muezzin in traditional attire stands before a microphone, recites a beautiful, inspiring Adhan, call to prayerYou'd jog a resort, wander a beach, jump into a dune
Wheeee times three!
You'd view artifacts from all over the Middle East at the Museum of Islamic Art and walk the length and breadth of the fantastic Museum park.  Where there are outstanding views of West Bay, hills, a strange obelisk like thing, and cool, glittering water.  You'd ride a dhow around Doha's fabulous West Bay...
...drink sweet hospitality tea, eat shwarma, hummus, pita, kofta, babaganoush, awesome delicious rice.  You'd absorb the unique smells, textures and flavors (fats, sugars, carbs) and you'd not be sorry.  Not one tiny, little bit.
Not sorry
Because later - of course - you'd drink sweet Herbalife tea and sweat it all out at the gym.
Plus, there's the Inland Sea where you'd (watch Mom) swim under a gleaming sun in the warm appearing, but deceptively cold Gulf spanning the distance between Qatar and Saudi Arabia...
blue, beautiful
Inland Sea in January 2014
...dune bashing and sand golf (for Mary Ann and Gary)
This is the fairway
This is the sand trap
Yes, the sand course has a sand trap
aka "bunker" 
falcons, giant pearls, massive teapots
Qatari night life, camel races, unmarked desert bound Catholic church - and treasures to be found at the updated-to-look-old, modern, antique souq.
at the souq
Lucky, happy people - to get a great, marvelous, wondrous, whirlwind, fantastic six days in Doha with our beautiful, smart, fantastic son!

Video snippets from one wondrous Doha day, chosen by the camera

Friday, January 10, 2014

Hot and Hotter: Doha Weather

Bob sweats in out at the dunes
June, 2012
First, it's true what "they" say about Doha July and August.  The sun rises at 4am and is fireball hot by 9am.  Heat and humidity mingle to waterfall down the sides of buildings and puddle into a moat outside doors and windows.  Skin bubbles with wet as you step outside and freezes into dandruffy crystals when you reenter.  The sea doesn't boil - not exactly - but a dip in the simmering Gulf doesn't offer relief from the crushing, microwave-like, skin, hair and eyebrow burning sun.
The hottest day I've experienced is 129F, with humidity.  I went for a run; crawled back.
There is a plus: many locals and others leave the city in July and August, so historically there's very little traffic.
In March and April, the wind picks up.  Sand blows in horizontal lines across the horizon, obscuring the sun, hiding buildings and the bay outside my window.  Gritty stuff creeps under windows and doors, coats patios and living room coffee tables.  Sand drifts in great blizzardy mounds across the road and everyone - everyone - covers faces.
patio sand writing: awwww!
In May and June the sun takes first steps toward its great, grand summer crescendo.  These brilliant-skied months feel like California, USA beach and pool season - but the danger is deceptive.  Burning rays will baste basking skin.  Wear sunscreen.  Lots of sunscreen.
Predictably unpredictable, hot, sandy, sweaty, dangerous.  Until…one day in September you notice your clothes aren't as wet as you walk across the parking lot to your car.  The air conditioning doesn't seem as arctic.  There are trucks full of rich, black, life producing earth rumbling toward roadway medians.  Men with shovels dig flower beds outside government offices.  Branches covered in rose hued blooms cascade over walls.  And there are…people.  Walking the Corniche at 11am, feeding the ducks in Aspire Park at all hours.  There are families about on Friday, children on the Ramallah Park swings, evening activities in Heritage Park, women strolling the boardwalk under my window late into the night.
It's Winter in Doha.
a family picnics at the Corniche, November 2012
Doha winter is payback for July and August, compensation for March and April, a daydream wish on a sweaty June day.  It's the longest running, most beloved Doha season, spanning September-ish into March-ish.  Doha winter is a blue skied, floral filled wonder.  It's Christmas and Easter, first and second Eid and a family wedding rolled into one great, grand celebration worthy offering.
There is beach sun from 11am-2pm.  The sea is cool and refreshing.  There are flowers in pots and along the sides of the road.  The daytime sun is warm and inviting.  It's jogging, sweater, let's go dune-bashing/camping at the Inland Sea weather.
And sometimes, when the people have been very good - like this year - there's…RAIN.  Which means: TRUFFLES.
"…Every year, if there is sufficient rain early in the winter season, truffles form just under the sandy or rocky desert surface, and searching for them is a local family pastime…"
Of course, warm, like cold, wealth and what constitutes an acceptable serving of Blue Bunny Chunky Chocolate Chip ice cream - is relative.  If you're accustomed to thermometer readings that zoom toward 129F, temperatures in the 60s and 70s (Fahrenheit) may feel like winter coat, hat and glove season.
too busy enjoying the beautiful Doha winter to take pics of guys in coats
here's a racing camel instead
But if you've been parked in Kansas City, Missouri, USA, where winter means negative double digit cold (without considering wind chill!) plus snow and ice and an endless season of no-sun, chubby-making indoor activities…temperatures in the 60s, 70s - or even 40s and 50s (Fahrenheit) - under a clear, slate blue sky - or rain!...feels like a vacation.
pretty Doha winter day

Looking forward to playing outside again!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Why I'm Not Posting a Blog Today, Redux

I'm proud to say I've posted a blog every week for more than a year.  In the home stretch now before I return to Doha with a surprise in tote, I don't want to ruin this blogging streak over a little homegrown under-the-weather.  So - to tide you over and hold my place, here are some pictures of a recent holiday visit to Kansas City, Missouri, USA's wonderful Aquarium.
A marvelous, magical journey
With a little mermaid
Sitting pretty in her underwater bubble
Small fingers, gentle touches
Special moments
Time very soon to return to the desert!
Thanks for reading!