This post continues the series of articles I’ve written based on interviews with five young Qatari women who are now attending universities at Qatar Foundation’s Education City in Doha, Qatar, including Northwestern and Virginia Commonwealth, and Swansea University in Wales.
Before moving to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia from Washington, DC in November 2000, and during my initial brush with life in the Kingdom I was always curious about how Gulf Arab people lived behind the high concrete walls that surrounded their homes. After living and working in Riyadh for a time I had the good fortune of becoming friends with a number of Saudis, and later Qataris when we moved to Doha in September 2004, and although I became familiar with Arab hospitality and the special bond of friendship, I always wondered about the everyday life of the average Arab family.
My discussions with the five young Qatari women I had the pleasure of interviewing uncovered the mystery only to reveal that the routine of daily life was very similar to how I grew up with some variations. I was surprised to learn, for example, that as schoolgirls, each of the young women enjoyed corn flakes, Cocoa Puffs, eggs, tea with condensed milk (chai haleeb), and fruits for breakfast. I had always envisioned a more exotic breakfast.
The homes of Qatari families tend to be considerable in size to accommodate the large numbers of family members, and a support staff that can typically include two maids (one of whom may be a cook) and two drivers. Two elements that differ between an American home and a Qatari home, are the number of bathrooms – one for each bedroom in Qatar, as well as the presence of a majlis in the Qatari home. A majlis is a large room with beautifully crafted and brightly colored chairs and sofas along the perimeter of the room, and coffee tables – sometimes with a TV. In a sedu style majlis, chairs and sofas are replaced with bright red cushions and pillows sometimes placed on the floor. There may be more than one majlis in the home, which serve as separate gathering places for men and women to discuss the day’s and world events, drink cardamom coffee, mint tea, feast on culinary delights (lamb and rice oftentimes) and sweet pastries. In general, segregated gatherings of family members occur every weekend with dinner –riz bi haleeb (rice and milk), margoog (doughy bread cooked with soup and vegetables), Egyptian rice, and sometimes, if it’s a big dinner, the family “orders in” from a restaurant. Dancing by female cousins to the strains of Khaleeji music is not uncommon at these weekend events.
The stereotypical images that many westerners have of great wealth in the Arab Gulf region was reinforced by these young girls when talking about the layout of their homes, and their maids, cooks, and drivers. These young ladies, however, all consider themselves to be middle class. Qataris are generally well-off due to the country’s natural gas wealth, but the young women explained that assistance from the government in the form of free land offers, and financial support for health and education related costs also help their families sustain seemingly affluent lifestyles.
The structure of the day in Qatar, and the Arab world at large, particularly the Gulf States, begins with an early morning start on the weekdays, and a several hour break in the middle of the day during which family members gather for a lunch, which is the big meal of the day. The meal does not normally get underway until all family members, parents and children are present, and rice tends to be the staple. Saloona (lamb, tomatoes, and onion over rice) and machboos (chicken over yellow rice) are popular dishes for lunch.
According to twenty-two year old Fatma Ibrahim, lunchtime at her grandfather’s house included not only her immediate family, but her extended family, as well. Fatma, her black opals fixed on mine, said, “Yes, we’d all have lunch together. My grandfather’s house and grounds were really big and we had our own villa inside, so when it was time for lunch we’d go to my grandfather’s place, which was within the same walls. We’d all sit together on a big place mat on the floor and have lunch. My grandfather loves fish, so we had fish. Fish would be cooked everyday and we’d have lamb and rice, or chicken and rice, it would alternate, but fish was always there. My parents, me, my brother, as well as my grandparents, my aunts, my cousins, everyone. We all lived in the same compound. Every day I saw all of my relatives for lunch.”
Dinner is a lighter meal without the obligation that all family members be present. Sherifa Hammam disclosed, “We usually have our dinner at six and we sometimes we have nuggets, fries, McDonalds, yeah my favorite, and chicken burgers.” She continues, “Me and my brother were usually the only ones around for dinner.”
Fatma reinforces this notion of the smaller, more informal dinner, by adding, “Dinner isn’t really a big thing, lunch is usually where we all sit together. For dinner we had sandwiches, or sometimes we’d order from “take out.” Dinner would just be me, my brother, and my mother. My father, after work, he would go to the majlis with the men. Usually they’d watch widescreen T.V. and football for a few hours.”
Eighteen year-old Mouza Abdulaziz chimes in, “Women also have their own room, or majlis. They normally have so many places in the house where they socialize. In my house there is one majlis outside for the men, and there is another majlis inside for the women and their kids when they come to visit.” As is the case at Fatma’s house, and many other Qatari households, Mouza relates, “When people visit us, the men sit in the majlis for a few hours watching widescreen TV, smoking sheesha, and having tea or cardamom coffee, or Arabic coffee.”
Fridays are a particularly important day in Qatar, and the larger Arab world, for religious reasons and, in Qatar, as the first day of the weekend. Fridays are similar to Sundays in the western world. Fridays in Qatar serve as a special day for families to assemble. Sherifa maintains, “It’s like a holy day for us, when we get together to see our parents and other relatives. Like we go to my grandfather’s house. Sometimes we eat lunch there, and all the males in the family go to the Mosque together, and the females go to my grandfather’s house where my aunts prepare lunch together, and then we sit together and eat.” Sherifa continues, “Sometimes we have fish, hammour, prepared traditionally with rice and sugar, which we call ‘baranyoish.’ This is the main dish we eat on Friday’s.” Sara Abdulghani related that she and her extended family eat “rice, kabobs, and toubouli,” and sometimes machboos and saloona at her grandparents house on Fridays.
According to Fatma, “On Fridays’ we would have a gathering at my grandmother’s house, on my mother’s side. We would go in the afternoon around five, and it would last the whole day, sometimes we’d sleep over, starting on Thursday, and then stay until Friday. We’d just sit around and talk, the kids would play, and then at around 8:00 PM we had dinner. My grandmother, my aunts, my uncles, and the kids would all be there. Everyone would have to get up early on Friday, because the men would have to get ready to go to the Friday prayers. So we’d usually get up early and there are always special shows on Friday on the television, like Kuwaiti plays. They are really popular, and we watch them all the time.”
Sherifa said her family sat “on the floor, on the carpet,” the traditional way, for their large Friday lunches. Mouza indicated lunches at her home were different, asserting, “Since our house is more western, we’d sit at the table but sometimes my Dad would feel like sitting on the floor, remembering the ‘old days.’ We usually didn’t like it because we have to go down and then there’s the process of getting up again.” Mouza added, “Unless there is a big, giant dinner at home, in which case there would be special rugs for the floor. It happens a lot. It depends, like if you want to invite your whole family and there are not enough chairs or tables to sit at, so we would just sit on the floor. We put the things on the rug and everyone is there and can see each other, so it’s better.”
I mentioned to the girls that when I was in Jordan in 1996 with my husband visiting his relatives, we ate mansef (lamb over rice with yogurt sauce) the traditional way, with our right hand. I was curious if the girls’ families ate their large Friday and other meals with their hands. Sherifa affirmed, “The male members of the family, they eat with their hands. The girls, only sometimes we eat with our hands.” Sara explained, “If I’m concerned about my nails I use a fork, but if I don’t care, I just eat with my hands.” Mouza put forward a similar sentiment remarking, “Well, I’m a person who is addicted to hand sanitizer, so I try my best not to get my hands dirty, but some people do eat with their hands, like they eat the rice and all with their hands. It’s normal to see.” Mouza added that young people these days usually use their hands for fast food. Fatma said that her family used to eat on the ground, but rendered, “It’s more modernized now. We eat at a table with forks and knives, unless it’s a big, big banquet and we’re eating from a communal tray.”
I asked Sherifa if during family gatherings she had to wear an abaye or something conservative. Sherifa responded, “Yes, only my shayla (scarf), and I have something ready to cover with, because I have my male cousins, and I have to cover around my male cousins, because you know, in my culture, you’re not allowed to be uncovered unless it’s your father, or brother, or your husband.” Sherifa added, “But even if I’m covering I will still hang out with our cousins, so it’s the same, I’m still able to visit with them. If you’re in puberty it’s “haraam” (forbidden) not to cover. Because, you know, now you are an adult. Like, you become a woman, so we have to cover ourselves.”
Friday lunches at the homes of grandparents represent the deep level of affection and admiration felt by those in the Gulf region for the older population. According to Fatma these feelings are steeped in the religion and culture of the Arab world. Fatma indicated, “We’re very respectful of our elders, and we’d never offend them or say anything wrong. We are always proper in dealing with them. It’s almost a formal relationship. Like there are lines that you cannot cross – we always make way for them, and if they don’t have a seat, just give them your seat. Even if you don’t know them, like if you are in the hospital, or some other place, we are very respectful of older people, in general.” Another example of the rich and distinctive culture of the Gulf Arab region!
- Young Gulf Arab Women’s Views on the Abaya (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- “Family Matters” in the Arab Gulf (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- Young Gulf Arab Women in Transition (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- Young Gulf Arab Women: Viewpoints on Western Influence (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage? (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)