Friday, January 30, 2015

Ma'a Salaama, Doha: No Regrets

Dashboard entertainment:

yes, this really happened
at 80km/hr
But first, this happened:

Landcruiser idled in traffic
driver's door open
errant youth chastised;
traffic waited
without honking horns
even though the light was green
Sure, driving in Doha is hazardous. Living in Qatar is like residing on a construction site surrounded by a construction site within a construction site bordered by a yacht-and-dhow-sprinkled moat overrun with princes.
Abandoned buildings disintegrate in the wind and sun. Roads are rerouted to accommodate construction needs. Appointments, schedules, contract dates and terms-set-in-stone are fluid. No mail service. Empty grocery shelves, the metric system. Familiar, brand name products - made for an international market - taste or work differently. Services are discontinued without notice. Wet summer air puddles under thresholds, teases body moisture into clothes. Salty water stings eyes, dries skin. Rules about alcohol, behavior, attire. A mysterious, minority host culture. Prejudice, bias, wasta. 
And, yeah, traffic.
a different kind of traffic picture:
bare road plus
parked, red lakhiwiyya police SUV...
black sedan, tinted window
headed your way
But life in Doha is not all teenage boys, plugged intersections, rebar and concrete. For example, there is year round sunshine. Seasonal pink flamingos, the souk. Gucci, Hermes, Giorgio Armani. Porsche and Lamborghini. Tennis, handball, camel racing, the Call to Prayer, cute baby giraffes.
the Doha Zoo remains closed
this is what it looks like when you drive in unannounced
while the guard is on break
(then charm your way out in pigeon Arabic)
Less than 100 years ago, Qatar was a vast expanse of sand. Today there are flowers and malls. Date palms hem a brick Corniche around a glittering Bay. An eccentric high rise skyline ponies up nighttime bling. The country's National Museum (under construction) is uniquely shaped like a Desert Rose. Three short years ago stereo speakers fixed in The Pearl's trees broadcast bird calls. Today real birds flutter in the fronds.
behind the walls
a community park
Growing pains feature in Qatar's dunes-to-mansions story. But rapid growth is the tale's hero - and villain. Now, as we leave the desert behind, we choose to focus on the experiences that made our time here memorable.
racing camels and trainer
camel jockey
once upon a time small children filled this role
today's jockeys are politically correct
monkey shaped robots
The People
Coworkers, desert strangers, locals, teachers, friends. Qatari women who invited me into their homes, shared cultural secrets and personal stories. Bob's golf buddies and the international team at Weill Cornell Medical College's Standardized Patient Program. More profiles than time to write.
Niqab and glasses
Read about it:
Deserts, beaches, resorts, churches, castles, pubs, B&Bs, spas. Ten countries, many cities. Exploring sand and rock from one end of the peninsula to the next.
Chris meets Corniche pearl
Read about it:
Time Together
A three year Qatari honeymoon. Opportunity to show our kids the world. Friday walks, trips to the desert, touring the Irish countryside in a Beemer.
ma sha allah!
Katie and Kimber at Film City
Read about it:
Culture and Language
Six day work weeks and unrelenting traffic didn't leave much room for sightseeing. Still we managed to learn some Arabic and gain understanding of a sometimes mysterious culture.
Bob and Cindi meet Qatar's Peace and Love Guy
Read about it:
We leave Qatar now with quivers full and no regrets. Ready to love on our kids, grandkids, family and friends. Paint our kitchen, seed our lawn, plant a garden. And prepare for life's next great adventure.
yallah habibkum!
This is the end.
Journey over;
new tale begins.
The essays in this blog reflect our experiences while living in Doha, Qatar during a particular 39-month period. Qatar is a new and evolving country; today, street names, shops and restaurant locations change overnight, tomorrow the landscape may be different. We hope you'll gain a positive appreciation for Qatar's people, religion, culture and history through our experiences.
ma'a salaama
auf wiedersehen
illa liqah
'bye now!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Birds, Mud and Poo

muddy promontory between ponds
Qatar is more than desert vistas and high rise skylines. More than traffic, sand, rock, humidity, racing camels, robot jockeys, ladies in black, men in white.
It's a place where emerald waters circle promontories strewn with reeds and wild, buoyant, floral flotsam. With furry tailed mammals, swollen hedges, congealed beaches. Teeming flocks of flying, floating, feeding birds that soar amid acres of composting earth. Where muddy fields constricted by power lines are squeezed by fences of throwaway brown-clumped tires.
birds over poo
That's right: I'm talking about the sewage ponds. Putrescent depressions, cavities of refuse, swollen receptacles of pungent effluvium bespattered with sometimes firm, sometimes sludgy, slimy, clotted emissions.
Each winter migrating birds from all over the world surge toward the Arabian peninsula's spattered reefs. These flocks of feathered folk fling themselves upon odious shores in search of nutrient rich streams and ripe rivulets. Travelling birds loll under splattering showers, bathe in the texturous atolls before continuing long journeys hither and yon.
flamingos! pretty flamingos! pretty pink flamingos!
If you want to see the birds, you gotta visit the "poo-poo ponds."*
slurpy muck, bare legs
Stick to the rear of the streaming trucks. Plop off the highway at the third exit from a roundabout that has no third exit. Slide between the fence posts and slip under the four footed electrical transmission towers. Push between the shimmering legs of one groaning structure and circle another. Head up a steep incline until you find the pebble strewn path where braided tires spot the earth in steamy heaps.
trucks and tires
If you trail into the country's bowels after two rare days of spitting rain, like we did, the earth may be aromatic, thick, slushy, loose as wind charges over the hollows. White caps will discharge swells of odorous repugnance.
odorous repugnance
Torrents of pungent, red tinted stuff may glop to your tires, streak windows, splatter explosive particles as you maneuver across just-wide-enough roadway mounds. Unremitting stripes of multi colored trucks will rumble over the headlands, raise back ends, pause. From some, liquid gushes out of circular orifices. Others use long hoses to dump waste from full bellies directly into the wetlands.
circular orifice, belly gush
In natural wastewater treatment systems, excretions are flushed through earthen barriers via a series of elevated waterways. Sediment is constrained by rock and earth so fluid becomes more potable as it trickles downwards. In modern facilities, water is treated using pipes. (Yeah, that's all I know.)
Until recently the most popular place to see Qatar's migrating birds was a modern sewage treatment facility called Abu Nakhla. Inexplicably/one day/in the way things happen here, Abu Nakhla was drained. Rumor is it was done to prevent flooding in "sensitive" (military) "locations" nearby in the event of (the "t" word) "incident."
Abu Nakhla today
When you visit the ponds, be sure to bring a knowledgeable guide to share fun bird facts while zooming close up images with her monster camera through gob spattered windows.
beautiful (ma sha allah!), knowledgeable guide Samantha Vidal
Through your guide's eyes you'll see tiny stick leg birds and cute little swimmers who immerse themselves in the nutrient rich waters. You'll learn about the cormorant's funky wing drying dance and how the red breasted grebe's feet are set behind his body which makes him a clumsy face planter on land.
stick leg bird
You'll tell bad poo jokes and laugh until maybe you pee a little.
pretty pink flamingo flies!
Migrating birds don't care about oil, gas or sports. They're not interested in sponsorship, construction dates, contracts, how much money you make, what color you are or where you're from. Their only concern is nutrients in the water and getting a little R&R. To the birds, a pause at Qatar's sewage ponds is a sort of - potty break - in the middle of a long trip across the world.
bird R&R
Wear disposable shoes. Keep windows up. Breathe lightly and don't forget your camera. But (given the opportunity) definitely, absolutely, visit the ponds.
beautiful (ma sha allah!) guide takes pics
The birds are waiting.
*credit to Samantha Vidal for use of the technical term "poo-poo ponds"

Friday, January 16, 2015

I Want Qatar To Be The Most Admired Country in the World

Donna Benton and The Entertainer
American Women's Association Qatar (AWAQ) meeting
Doha, Qatar, January 2015
She's a self-made millionaire.
Donna Benton is owner and CEO of The Entertainer, a popular two-for-one coupon book available in an ever expanding list of countries throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. She landed in Dubai from Australia 14 years ago for a job that didn't work out. With $3,000 in her pocket and not much else, she built a profitable business as a woman in a male dominated culture. Today her start up is a multi-billion dollar enterprise with themed books in UAE, Qatar and many other places including Johannesburg, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Jordan, Lebanon and London. The product is newly available as an app that downloads coupons and updates to a subscriber's smart phone.
"…the company currently has more than 100 employees worldwide, with around 70 based in Dubai. 'We have a new employee every fortnight and are expecting more new hires'…"

Today, she's a wife, mother, CEO, visionary. She's strong and personable, fascinating, inspiring, approachable.

But Donna Benton is not the reason a room full of international women still hums long past the featured speech. She is not why women continue to sip coffee in a well-appointed social room at Souq Waqif's Al Mirqab Hotel an hour after the end of the meeting. Nope.
The buzz is all about Khalifa Saleh Al Haroon. Or, as he's better known in these parts, "Your Friendly Neighborhood Qatari, Mr Q."
He's late.
waiting on Mr Q
Mary Anne, Sam, Cindi, Wendy
AWAQ meeting
Doha, Qatar, January 2015
In Qatar, Mr Q is a celebrity. His one to three minute, fun and funny videos introduce the inquisitive foreigner to curious Qatari habits: Why do Qatari men rub noses? What's the proper way to sit down? Shake hands or don't shake hands? Do Qatari men wear pants under their thobes?
"I wanted to be the first Qatari movie star in Hollywood," says Khalifa. "But my dad laughed." He shrugs. "I went into law."
Watch Mr Q

QTip: Why are Qataris Smelly? (5 ways to smell good!)

Today Khalifa aka Mr Q is dapper in a brown winter thobe and a white ghutra worn in the "cobra" style. He is enthusiastic, friendly, outspoken. And tardy.
But, "I'm not a late Qatari," he insists. This is an isolated instance, not a cultural event. He points to the usual delay-making factors: Traffic. Road closures. No parking around the venue.
Spoons clink porcelain, the scent of sweet bread warms the air. Heads nod, corners of mouths turn up politely. Donna Benton was on time. We were on time.
Still.Whatev. "Late" is the name of the game in Qatar. He is Qatari. He is forgiven.
Selfie with Mr Q
AWAQ meeting
Doha, Qatar, January 2015
Besides, he's adorable. Charming, outgoing, charismatic. He holds law degrees from the UK, speaks colloquial American English with a shiny bit of I-attended-British-university. He likes dogs. And bonus: he's 30 years old and single.
Khalifa's Linkedin resume outlines an impressive list of achievements dating back to his high school graduation: board member, shareholder, founder, CEO, ambassador, business owner, head of this, chair of that. Young Achiever of the Year, Qatar's Top 100 Hot List for 2014. He's the founder of ILove, ( which just celebrated its 5th anniversary. His numerous skills include "…start-ups, business strategy, entrepreneurship, business development…" and more.
He flips his ghutra over a shoulder.
"The BBC claims that Qatar is schizophrenic," he says. "That we don't know if we want to be cultural or modern."
He straightens his shoulders. "I want Qatar to be the most admired country in the world." Futuristic, progressive, modern, tolerant. As he says in inspirational speeches to school aged Qatari boys, "You can have it all."
Khalifa Saleh Al Haroon, aka Mr Q
One woman raises her hand. "What about the generation of Lost Souls?" she says. You know, the boys who rev engines at The Pearl late at night, race motorcycles in creeping, bumper to fender Doha traffic? Chase tourist filled dhows on jet skis? Cruise bars? Wreak havoc from one end of the country to the other? Those wasta employed, over privileged Middle Eastern goodfellas?
Qatari boys chasing tourist dhow on jet skis
(Yes, this really happened)
Outside Doha, September 2014)
Khalifa shakes his head. Have you heard of the Doha Depression? he says. This is about boys with more time than things to do. And a culture that indirectly teaches its young that it's not okay to fail.
"I believe there's a generation between mine and my father's that became too rich too quick," he says. In a survey the most common goal of this group was to "achieve their own skyscraper." Today things are turning around as a new, up and coming group seeks bigger dreams. "Guess who's the current largest audience on youtube," he says. "Saudi Arabian females. Most popular topic? Education."
Another hand goes up. Why do Qataris keep separate from expats?
"For every expat to have one Qatari friend," he says. "Every Qatari must have seven expat friends." He laughs. "I already have more than 100 family members!"
A third hand. "Can we get a dog park in Qatar?" And finally, "Who do I talk to about setting you up with my daughter?"
Um. "Just ask," he says. "I won't say no."
With grace, sincerity and for coming up with a politely generic response to the dog park question, Khalifa aka Mr Q is a stereotype-busting ambassador to a place that has blossomed high rises from sand in the way a 12 year old boy sprouts six inches overnight.
But Donna Benton? Who started with nothing, generated a marketable idea in a place where it can be difficult for women to be accepted on the same platform as men? And, without maids, nannies or someone to carry her cell phone, turned her idea into a multi-billion dollar venture? She's amazing.
"…The Entertainer now has 12 types of discount voucher books that include many two-for-one deals on waterparks, fine-dining restaurants, hotels, golf courses and adventures in the desert. The company's deals now go further afield than the Middle East, and cover the Maldives in the Indian Ocean to Cyprus in the Mediterranean. Two new books are also slated to be launched next year in Riyadh and Jeddah…", August 2011
photo courtesy Samantha Vidal

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Humidity on Fire

humidity fog encircles Fanar
I'm inside my peaceful apartment when the alarm goes off. Get out get out get out! it shrieks.
Mid-September in Doha. Outside temperatures hover just above hell and death. Humid, boiling air shimmers, a pavement tornado. Hair wilts. Shoes melt. Water courses down buildings, fogs window panes, puddles on sidewalks.
Hot is sunshine, warmth, rosy cheeks. Humidity is clothing glued to slick, greasy skin.
Love the hot. The humidity? Not so much.
The boardwalk below my window is empty as a world of people seek relief from the boiling, burning steaminess in air conditioned interior Doha. Where always on AC's hum icy wind into corners. And temperatures range from cool-and-breezy to Alaska-meets-Antarctica levels. I huddle in a thick blanket wearing fuzzy socks and a sweatshirt. Goosebumps rise on my arms and legs. My scalp tingles.
I am polar ice wrapped in equatorial fire.
I turn off the AC and the ice in my nose melts. I remove the blanket, toss aside the socks. Comfortable - but only for a moment.
When muggy air stops moving, summer smells like warm bread and beach morph rapidly into moldy shower and old meat. Spicy food scents shuffle in through the ceiling and walls and make me sneeze. The kitchen vent bleats open/shut/open/shut as laborers toiling over yet another roof construction project allow sultry air in/out/in/out. Sweat mounts the hair on my arms and bubbles at my scalp. The wet tickles.
I flip the AC back on. But this time I also open the balcony door.
Sweltering air mixes with frosty wind like hot and cold tap water. Soon the environment is a perfect combination of winter's chill and summer's scorch. I move easily from the air conditioned balcony to the heated living room. I am a grassy bank in the American Midwest Fall, a trip to the lake in the Missouri USA Spring. Feet tapping cool water, skin caressed by the perfect breeze. Garnished with just enough hot.
I fold the blanket, toss socks and sweaty shirt into the laundry, dance across the living room.
The alarm is shrill and sudden, a horn in my ear. Lights flash at the intercom. Fire? The hallway outside my apartment is silent.
I search the single bedroom, living room, kitchen, bath, laundry space. No fire, no embers, no smoke, no place to hide.
I call the front desk. The receptionist yawns. "Someone will come," she says. In sha allah. "No worries."
Head throbbing from the shrieking alarm, I slam and lock doors, stumble down two flights of stairs, run across a garage, descend two additional floors and hurry through a hall to the front desk. "There's a fire in my apartment," I say. Maybe?
"He is coming," says the receptionist. She shrugs. "Never mind."
I reverse the journey, return to the apartment. The alarm is off. The frozen room hums. Let it go, it seems to say.
Twenty minutes later a single security guard arrives, wearing a coat. He wanders the apartment, peeks into corners. "Did you open the door, ma'am?" His voice accuses.
I nod.
He shakes his head, sighs. "It's the humidity, Ma'am. But do not worry. If it was a real fire, we would come."
I reach for my blanket, a clean pair of fuzzy socks. Another sweatshirt. The cold never bothered me anyway, I think.
Only…it's not true.
Read more about (my experience with) Doha's weather: 

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Made Up Place

under-tenanted at The Pearl, 2014
"…the number of residents here will grow on average by 7.4 percent annually in the coming years, reaching 2.5 million by 2016…"
If you're among the thousands of new expats expected to relocate to Qatar in the years leading up to the 2022 World Cup, here are a few things you should know:
1. It's KAH-tur.
Not Cutter (US), KAH-TAH (Brit) kuh-TAR (everyone else).
There are three letters/sounds in the classical pronunciation of the country's name : qaaf (enunciated deep in the throat)/tah (with a concave tongue)/ray (rolling r).
Exception: in Qatari (KAH-ta-ree) dialect qaaf is pronounced with a soft gee, as in gas, so locals refer to their own country as GUH-tur.
this way to "the spa"
2. They are not Qatari.
There are somewhere around a whole lot of people living in Qatar - but only 1/3 of them are bonafide, card carrying Qatari nationals. Of the remaining 2/3, most are unskilled laborers from India and Nepal or service workers from Philippines. A small percentage of the larger population are from the US, Britain, Australia and other European nations. Even shopkeepers dressed in traditional thobe and ghutra at the brand-new-made-to-look-old Souk Waqif are from somewhere else.
Sure, Qataris are out and about. You'll see them in malls, feel your car shake as their Land Cruisers rush past, smell their oud in elevators. And, yes, Qataris work! Not every day or regular hours. They take a lot of vacations. You'll never meet a Qatari taking orders at McD's, working the DQ drive thru or answering phones at the Ramada. But still. Fresh out of school they claim top tier positions as government school teachers, administrators, CEOS and entrepreneurs (see #3, below). Qatari law requires that a local own a minimum 51% share of every business.
In Qatar, there are lots of layers between the larger population and nationals, even in independent business. Unless you come to Qatar as a nanny, maid, driver or clerk, hang around Fanar Islamic Cultural Institute, get into trouble or enjoy a busy night life (see #4 below) - you may never come to know a Qatari in Qatar.
3. Wasta. Bias. Traffic.
Wasta is nepotism without stigma; specially packaged bias in a place where employment, accommodation, financial perks and social rank are already determined by nationality and race. Where a high school graduate may be absorbed into university with low expectation and flung into a high level position without experience. It's a culturally approved professional track for the young and privileged when rules already preclude attendance at government funded university beyond age 40 and foreigners may be expelled once they reach age 60.
Hooray for traffic, the great equalizer. No amount of wasta exempts you, it doesn't matter where you're from, the color of your skin, language you speak or how old you are. Cars, trucks, vans, buses, Land Cruiser, Toyota loll bumper to fender; nationals and expats together in endless smoky lines, late for work and play; listening to Taylor Swift on CD, blaming them (see #2, above) for their troubles.
wasta in action?
photo courtesy Matt Mikus
visit Matt's travel blog: postcards and playlists
4. Not as conservative as you think.
If she's local, between the ages of 25 - 50 and dressed in abaya and hijab, she likely has a college degree. She's fluent in three languages, well read and considering a new business venture. Odds are, she's travelled the world, holds a driver's license, manages a busy household in a rapidly changing environment and works too. She's thoughtful and interesting and you'll never meet her. At least not in Qatar. (See #2, above.)
The face of Qatar is English speaking/educated abroad/thobe-wearing/wasta employed/under-30 year old, young men.
In Time Magazine, they stand stoically for photos before West Bay's whacky skyline. They're a vision in white at the Qatar Tennis Open (and other celebrity events).
In Qatar? They're hanging out of SUVs as they circle the camel race track. Flashing Lamborghini headlights in your rearview mirror. Swerving in and out of the everywhere traffic clog. Performing motorcycle tricks in intersections as multitudes of incidental spectators idle. Escorting falcons through the souk. Creating an impassible thobe-to-thobe chain along the Pearl's boardwalk. Sliding down dunes in $60,000 USD cars.
Nose tapping, laughing, hand holding. In restaurants, hotels, movie theaters and, yes, wearing Western clothes, in bars. (Traditional attire - and local ladies - not allowed.)
(highlight added)
White thobe and sandals, ghutra. Male traditional attire is legitimately worn by conservative Muslims of all nationalities as a humble religious gesture. It's worn by shopkeepers and other workers to provide ambience in the souk and at special events. But if it's after 3pm, he's under 30, heavily starched ghutra is tipped at a jaunty angle and other expats are stepping aside and/or changing lanes? He's probably local.
Souk Waqif, 2014
5. A made up place.
Less than one hundred years ago, Qataris were pearl divers in the summer, Bedouin camel and sheep farmers in the winter. Locals lived in fabric tents and porous rock huts. All of which have long since dissolved into the landscape.
There are no pyramids, castles, ancient mosques in Qatar. Zubarah Fort wasn't built until 1938. There's no indoor snow skiing, walk-through aquarium or Burj Khalifa.
What Qatar does have is a rocky coastline, dunes, Sheikh Faisal. There is evidence of ancestral participation in the Orient's purple dye industry. Living people who remember (if you're fortunate enough to meet one; see #2 above).
And, oh yeah, money.
Damien Hurst's "Miraculous Journey"
Sidra Medical and Research Center, Doha

Thanks to oil and gas income, today's Qatar-in-the-making is a new money let's-build-something! playground produced by underpaid Asian laborers held captive by the Kefala sponsorship system. In which a worker relinquishes his dignity along with his passport.

As the country hasn't been industrialized long enough to provide its own architects, engineers and skilled workers, for its reinvention it must rely upon the talents of  foreign professionals. These educated, experienced, often pushing-60 individuals are paid to design and implement infrastructure, roads, stadium projects, a multi-billion dollar downtown, zoo and possibly the world's-longest-strip-mall - a shopping shell pocked with inaccessible-due-to-construction businesses.

Thanks to money, sand is processed, water desalinated. Humid, shimmering air is recycled so interior temperatures remain arctic even in the most eyebrow sizzling weather. Under-tenanted resorts exist in places that once belonged to the sea. Elaborately decorated mansion sized villas bloom in artificially enhanced areas that once couldn't sustain life. Homes feature his'n her majlis spaces where she sips tea and nibbles sweets with the ladies while he smokes sheesha and hangs with the guys.

Thanks to money, there are highways garnished with floral displays, modern automated billboards, plazas, parks, old malls, new malls, malls-to-be. But no tourists.
"…We don't want people to come for a $50 room to lie on the beach all day and walk around with a backpack and shorts. These are not the type of people we're targeting. We are different from the neighbouring countries. They focus on tourism as a source of income. If (the tourism market) crashes, it makes no difference for us…"
Qatar Tourism Authority's Ahmed Abdullah Al-Nuaimi,
Reuters, August 2011

In 2014 Doha, oil and gas funded high rises and hotels stand empty. Bored clerks check facebook and play games on phones. Laborers are paid to attend world class sporting events. Doha's version of the Big Red Bus, the cheerful green and yellow, double decker DohaBus, trundles empty from Lagoona Mall to the (under construction) National Library. At night, West Bay's skyline strobes above sporadically populated party lit dhows.
Thank goodness for money! Without it, today's Qatar just wouldn't…be.