Tribute to My Friend, Sherifa

I write this tribute in honor of my friend, Sherifa, a young woman who taught me more than most about the culture and lifestyle of Qatar.  My hope is that Sherifa’s voice and sentiments live on in the dreams of other young Qatari women.  This article recounts several interviews I had with Sherifa. 

Sherifa died in a tragic car accident on November 22, 2013 on the precarious, and sometimes perilous, streets of Doha.  She had turned 23 just a week prior to her car accident.  Sherifa, who received her law degree from Swansea University in Wales only months ago, had a dream to become one of the first female judges in Qatar.  This young rising star was the eldest of five children, and was cherished by family and friends.  Short in stature, Sherifa’s candid charm, infectious spirit, and commanding manner always filled a room.  Sherifa loved her Smart Phone, texting, and shopping at Doha’s malls for designer jeans, handbags, and shoes, yet regularly stood up for those less fortunate than herself.  I was frequently disconcerted when Sherifa routinely ordered for the entire table when my husband and I joined her and her family for dinner – a highly unusual action for a young woman in the Gulf region.  Sherifa’s forthright actions say not only a lot about her own nature, but the unique environment in which her parents raised her.  Sherifa, who defied all stereotypes, was bold and resolute, yet compassionate and a realist.

Sherifa

Sherifa

I first met Sherifa in February of 2009 when I was looking for female Qatari university students to interview for a series of articles focusing on the role of women in the Arabian Peninsula, the effects of western influence on the everyday lives of young Gulf Arab women, and concerns around balancing career/marriage/family in a changing region.  Five young women, three of whom attended Northwestern University-Qatar and one at Virginia Commonwealth-Qatar, graciously agreed to be interviewed, Sherifa (who attended Swansea) among them.  Immediately following our initial interview, Sherifa insisted I go to her home to meet her family and experience some “real Qatari hospitality.”  That very evening I found myself seated on a bright red overstuffed loveseat being served cardamom coffee and Arabic sweets on a silver platter by Sherifa herself in the luxurious sitting room of her home.  I had the pleasure of meeting Sherifa’s mother, father, as well as a younger sister and brother.  Later in the evening, my husband, Bishara, and I met Sherifa and her parents at Villagio (an upscale mall) for coffee, the beginning of a deepening friendship between Sherifa and her family, and Bishara and me.  We had an instant “cellular” connection.

After several interviews with Sherifa, it became apparent that her views and outlook reflected a deeply ingrained need to adhere to her traditional Gulf lifestyle, tinged with an attentiveness to the “creep of westernization” that had infiltrated her world holding open the possibility of new opportunities.  Around a year ago, Sherifa and her family most graciously invited me and Bishara to a day-long fete at their desert family farm, around an hour outside of Doha, which included a sumptuous traditional meal and a healthy dose of Gulf hospitality.  I had the good fortune of interviewing Sherifa during this occasion.  We started our session seated atop colorful cushions outside the women’s tent where chatter and Gulf music permeated the night air; in the distance laughter from Sherifa’s male relatives and my husband arose over the din of the crackling grill where lamb kabobs roasted.  Poised and leaning forward, casting the light from her phone over my interview notes, Sherifa divulged that she was “not comfortable” when asked if she was being encouraged to get married and settle down.  Sherifa went on to declare, “My family wants me to get married as soon as possible. I don’t know, I just feel that I like my freedom. I’m not even trying to meet any one.  And, I don’t know, I’m not going to say I agree 100% with arranged marriage. I know it is my culture and all, but I want to actually meet the person I’m going to marry before getting married.”  Sherifa’s family’s concerns were understandable in the more conservative Gulf region where an unmarried woman in her late 20s is considered an “old maid.”  How did Sherifa think she would meet that special person?  “I don’t know. Maybe work, maybe a workshop, or travelling. I thought maybe while studying, but I’ve never really thought about it. It’s not one of my biggest missions. My focus is about my education. And my education comes first.”

Sherifa revealed that attending Swansea University in Wales had been a life-changing time for her.  Taking a deep breath and crossing her legs across the cushion, Sherifa maintained, “When I first went to Swansea I was 18 years old. I learned how to be independent. I learned a lot of things. When I’m there at Swansea, I’m not going to say I’m alone, but you know, I need to take care of myself. I need to figure everything out myself. I can’t just go and cry and tell my Mom to help me. Because my life here (in Qatar), we are so spoiled. Everything is done for us by our household staff–maids, cooks, and drivers. We don’t have to think about anything; everything is just casual and everything is organized for us. When I went to the United Kingdom, it became a very different journey for me. I knew since I was a kid I wanted to study abroad. I had dreams about it.”

I inquired how Sherifa was treated as a young Arab woman in the UK.  She took a sip of her Turkish coffee and replied, “I know that not all people accept me back in the United Kingdom. Even in the U.S. when I visited Oklahoma as part of my university program, I know some people who were saying, ‘Who’s she?’  ‘Where is she from?’  And they think that because we’re wearing a scarf, or because we’re Arabs, we come from a really restrictive place. I know a girl in the UK who cannot even smoke in front of me, because she thinks it’s disrespectful of me. I told her ‘You can smoke, I don’t mind.’  And even some people I know in the UK cannot curse in front of me. It’s their right to speak as they wish. You know, when I’m with my friends and we’re chilling, who cares. Like seriously, why are you putting boundaries?”

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Sherifa’s family farm in the desert. (Men’s Tent)

When asked about her plans for the future, Sherifa, surveying the desert horizon, responded, “A few months from now I’ll be graduating, hopefully by June.  So I’m thinking of working in the Ministry of Justice in Qatar, a part-time job. In the morning I’ll actually practice law, and go back in the afternoon and work at the company that sponsors me, since I need to work for them for the same number of years I’ve been away at university. They sponsored me for four years, so I need to work for them for four years.”

Given her impressive academic credentials and career aspirations, I wondered if eligible young men might be intimated by Sherifa.  Always the realist, Sherifa announced, “This has already happened, and I think this will happen in the future. I do want to marry a man who has an even stronger background than me, so he can lead the family, as I know that otherwise it would always be a problem.”

I knew Sherifa would also face expectations that she have children once married.  Large families are a staple in the Arabian Peninsula where it is not uncommon to have six or more children under one roof.  According to Sherifa, “People [in the Gulf] believe that children will bring more joy and happiness than getting married.”  What were Sherifa’s own personal thoughts on having a family, especially given her lofty ambitions?  Had she thought about how many children she would like to have?  Sherifa fixed her eyes on mine, and related, “It’s hard to say. I want to give them the best education they can have. I want them to live the best life they can have, so if I have money it’s okay. I’ll have to think about it financially. I’m a planner. I want to look at the future. In the old times it was like just keep, keep, keep having children. I say, no, I have to think about how I am going to feed them; am I going to be able to be there for them. They need not only financial support, they need emotional support, my support.  Time management is a big issue, and in my type of career it’s going to be a helluva lot of work. I’m going to be a lawyer, and if I want to have a lot of kids I want to know I’m going to have time to be there for them. Both at school, after school, even on the weekends and all, I need to plan everything. If it’s up to me, two to three children, max.”

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Feast at desert family farm.

Several years earlier when discussing children and marriage I asked Sherifa if she would need the permission of her father before she married.  Sherifa affirmed, “If I ask my Dad’s permission it would be easier for me, because even if I’m married to this guy who I love I would still be thinking about my family, because family is the most important thing in our society, our beliefs and our culture and everything.”  Steadfast, Sherifa emphasized, “Because I’m carrying his name.  For us here in this society, we have to respect that I’m carrying my father’s name.”

When speaking of family, Sherifa often became animated.  “It’s written in our religion we have to be bonded together by family, because this is how we’re going to survive in life,” pronounced Sherifa.  “We need someone to share with us our happy moments, sad moments, to be around, you know.”  Families, immediate and extended, gather often in the Gulf States, and cousins are particularly close, meeting often on weekends at a family home where they might dance to Khaleeji music, watch movies, divulge secrets, or decide to go out to a mall.  Sherifa highlighted the value placed on family connections and Fridays, in particular, that are “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 added that her family sits “on the floor, on the carpet, the traditional way,” eating from large communal trays.

I was curious if Sherifa had to wear an abaye (long black robe) during family gatherings.  Brushing a wisp of hair from her forehead, Sherifa explained, “Yes, only my shayla (scarf), and I have something ready to cover with, because I have my male cousins I have to cover around.  In my culture, you’re not allowed to be uncovered unless it’s your father, brother, [uncle], or your husband.”  In other words, the Shayla is only worn around men you could potentially marry.  Sherifa continued, “If you’re in puberty it’s “haraam” (forbidden) not to cover.  You become a woman, so we have to cover ourselves.”

How did Sherifa feel about the cause of women in Qatar?  Her hands folded on her lap, Sherifa responded,  “I feel that we used to be a bit restricted, but now I feel we have more freedom and rights, and individuals are realizing that if you want to do something for women, it’s easier now. We have the basic right for women to drive, which is not the case, for instance, in Saudi Arabia. I think we’ve changed a lot in Qatar. Even the way we think, about co-eduation. There are many more co-educational schools than in the past. Even my Dad, I believe, has changed in his outlook over time. The views of the older generation, like my grandfather, though, are much the same as in the past.  If I see my grandfather, and I sit with him, his mentality and the way he thinks about Qatar’s development is very different from my Dad’s view. I can’t really use my Dad as an example, though, because he went to the U.S. and, actually, has been around Western society and has, therefore, been influenced, I could say, a bit, which does make a difference.”

When asked about her grandfather, Sherifa disclosed, “He’s old fashioned. I can’t, for instance, go out without my abaya when my grandfather is around, because he thinks it’s ‘shame.’  I can’t just be like this (in a t-shirt, jeans, and jacket) like I am now in the desert. If I’m downtown in Doha and dressed like this it is like ‘shame’ on me.  So, yes, I think my grandfather wouldn’t approve of how I’m dressed right now. Even driving. I can’t just go to my grandfather and say, “Well, Granddad, I drive.”  He wouldn’t understand; he would be like ‘Why? I’ll go and get you a driver, your own personal chauffeur, you don’t have to drive,’ because he’s that old fashioned. He thinks women should be treated differently. Women shouldn’t do anything, women should be spoiled. A woman’s job is to be at home, that’s it. Like nowadays, women want to work. I, myself, want to be something. I might be a judge, I don’t know. Like 10 years from now, no one knows.”

So, what is viewed as a more conservative outlook is actually about spoiling women, not about keeping them down?  According to Sherifa, her black opals flaring, “No, it’s not about keeping women down. Even in our religion, we should respect women. Our Prophet respected women, and everything about women. Women have rights, it doesn’t mean we don’t have rights, but the idea is men should take care of us. We are not supposed to do anything on our part; we just need to be handling the house and children. That’s the woman’s job, that’s the mentality of the older generation.”

Sherifa persisted, “Yes, but nowadays our society knows that women need to work. Because society is different, now we need to help our husbands, like for the future. I don’t only want to support my husband emotionally; I also want to be there for him financially. So, it’s different. If I’m going to follow the same ‘old’ mentality, then I’m going to sit at home and leave my husband with all the debt and everything. No, I’m not that kind of person, I want to help him. Back in the ‘old days’ you didn’t even have the right to think about helping, because it was like the husband would think he’s less of a man if he accepted money from a woman, which is not the case now. Because the idea of equality has entered our society, people are trying to understand that we are equal, as men and women. It’s not like we’re 100% equal, because it’s not going to happen.  Logically, it will never be equal. Men always have the privilege.  So, the idea now is we’re just trying to actually make it all work. You see it’s different now; women have more rights, and men are more understanding.”

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Women’s tent.

What were Sherifa’s thoughts on how Arab countries outside Qatar and the Arabian Gulf differ in their thinking on women’s roles, as well as in culture and outlook?  My husband was from Lebanon, which is like being on a completely different planet than being in Qatar.  Readjusting her headscarf, Sherifa asserted, “Exactly. Lebanese have more freedom. Their culture is more open. Okay, we, in Qatar have freedom. Like you see, I have freedom and everything, but at the end of the day, our culture comes first. Like what we have, our traditions and everything, comes first. But you see, like downtown, I can’t be dressed like this, in jeans and a t-shirt. It’s not the same here in Qatar; we still need to appreciate our traditions. In Lebanon, you can do whatever you want. It doesn’t matter.”

I mentioned to Sherifa how much I appreciated the traditional Gulf hospitality her mother showed my husband and me when we visited Sherifa’s home.  I particularly enjoyed the custom of bringing female guests bakhour (incense) after a meal, which the guests waft under their clothes and around their faces.  Sherifa expounded, “Usually this is the way of saying you are welcome to our house, and that we have the pleasure to have you here. And sometimes if it’s getting too late and you want to say it’s getting too late, in a polite manner, so you just give your guests bakhour and it’s like a signal that was used in the old days.  We have a saying in Arabic that means when people give you perfume, it’s not that you have to leave, but that things are winding down, in a nice and polite way.”  When I imparted that Bishara and I were astounded by, and grateful for, the generosity we were shown when at her family’s desert farm, Sherifa smiled, her eyes flashing, “It’s one of the biggest Arab traditions, this type of hospitality, you know. It’s known among the Arabs.”

Roasting corn and chestnuts in women's tent.

Roasting corn and chestnuts in women’s tent.

Sherifa’s own compassion, and interest in improving the well-being of others, was remarkable for one so young.  When only 18 years-old, and a student at the Academic Bridge Program at Education City (Qatar Foundation), for instance, Sherifa worked closely with a human rights conference in which domestic abuse in Qatar, as well as poor migrant workers’ conditions were discussed, and potential solutions developed.  While serious-minded, though, Sherifa balanced her focus on improving community concerns, and an interest in regional and global issues, with a wonderful sense of humor.  During an interview, when I asked the girls if, given the choice, they would choose a different gender for themselves, Sherifa, with her trademark toothy grin, blurted, “Of course, a man; I could marry four women.”

Me and Sherifa at family farm outside of Doha.

Me and Sherifa at family farm outside of Doha.

Sherifa’s legacy lives on in the four other young women I interviewed alongside Sherifa, (including Fatma I., Mouza, Sarah, and Fatma A.), and others like them, as well as in Sherifa’s two younger sisters, all of whom are smart, courageous, forward-looking and undaunted.

#longreads

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Women, Culture, and Identity in Qatar – Part 2

Part two of my interview (with Sherifa Hammam) published in the newsletter of Peace X Peace, a global organization, which promotes “women’s capacity to connect across divides.”

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The link to my article is:  Women, Culture, and Identity in Qatar – Part 2

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Sherifa Hammam

 

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Women, Culture, and Identity in Qatar – Part 1

I have been published in the e-newsletter of Peace X Peace, an organization that “nurtures a global network of ‘peacebuilders’ in 120 countries.”

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The link to my article is:  Women, Culture, and Identity in Qatar – Part 1 .

Me and Sherifa in Desert of Qatar

Me and Sherifa in Desert of Qatar

 

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Shopping, The Great Leveller

I originally published this article in Woman Today, January 2009.

Gatherings of women enveloped in black moved effortlessly along the corridors while children darted around their purposeful steps.  Men in white flowing robes and ghuttras clutched the handbags of their wives while they combed through the maze of ladies’ shops and shoe stores set in amongst Starbucks, Saks 5th Avenue, and Tiffany’s.  For me, images of life in the Middle East conjured up vast marketplaces and merchant stalls flush with clothes, jewelry, and artifacts; I hardly anticipated shopping at an upscale, western-style mall only two days after arriving in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from Washington, DC in late 2000.  My husband, a Lebanese national, and I were barely acquainted with our new life abroad when a friendly work colleague offered to introduce us to the many mall shopping opportunities available in the capital.  I was initially skeptical; I had certainly seen my share of American malls, but this colleague assured me that mall shopping in Riyadh was a very unique experience.  The words “unique experience” piqued my interest.  As a naturally curious expatriate with a propensity towards indulging in new endeavors, I agreed, allowing our guide to lead us through a dizzying tour of some incredibly upscale, couture stores.

Villagio Mall (Doha, Qatar)

The ceaseless whirring of cash registers following us from store to store indicated that these shoppers could afford their extravagant acquisitions.  In the Kingdom, “mall shopping” takes its pattern from western models with endless square footage devoted to stores that offer a range of apparel, jewelry, shoes, housewares, and electronics or specialty products for the discriminating consumer.  In the U.S., the ubiquitous mall ranges from low cost to high-end stores or those that blend the two, providing offerings for nearly every socioeconomic group.

In 2004 we relocated to Doha where I was similarly astonished by the quantity of malls with their exquisite shops and recreational opportunities.  Young adults and children glided around the ice skating rink at City Center and families slid along in gondolas down the Venetian-style canal of Villagio Mall.  (Note: Villagio Mall was recently closed due to a tragic fire.)  An American expatriate, Katita, living in Doha shared her wonder at these spectacles:  “When my family and I first shopped at Landmark Mall, I was so surprised to see this beautiful mall with all of its western type stores with everything from Chanel perfume to Swatch watches.  My favorite was the supermarket at one end, which all the malls have. Talk about ‘One Stop Shopping.’

Katita Wilmot

On my assorted shopping jaunts, I myself have observed that mall expeditions in Qatar seem to offer socializing experiences similar to the U.S.  Young people frequent City Center, Villagio, and Landmark where they gather to fraternize and mingle much in the same way that American youths spend entire afternoons casually roaming the mall and meeting with friends.  However, in Doha local young men and women are segregated; likewise, only families are permitted in the malls of Riyadh, which curbs anxieties about loitering single men.

I quickly noticed that Qatar malls were more than spaces of commerce or places to enjoy leisure activities; they were locations where  women could revel in displaying their fine apparel and carefully styled hair and makeup.  Throngs of Arab women, a portion in beautifully adorned abayes, embroidered with fine, gold thread, meander in the corridors between stores, punctuating groups of western women wearing the latest couture styles.  It amused me to think of these women as living models, competing with the array of clothes and high fashion on display.

“The Pearl” in Doha provides abundant upscale shopping opportunities.

In America, the trek to the mall is treated less as a prized social outing or special occasion and more as a utilitarian activity; men and women hardly dress with formal intent, preferring instead to don comfortable jeans, shorts, or baseball caps and tennis shoes.   For U.S. citizens, mall outings are first and foremost consumer excursions: Americans are bombarded with an array of discount opportunities and urged to take advantage of these savings by using their credit cards or opening new charge accounts at any given store.  When my husband and I first arrived in Riyadh, I was stupefied at the reliance on cold, hard cash.  The credit cards we eagerly acquired through our employer remained unused in my purse and my husband’s wallet.  In America we had become conditioned to witnessing consumers using their VISA card to pay for a two dollar McDonald’s food order.  In Doha, the credit card we obtained upon arrival debited expenditures immediately from our bank account leaving us free from the financial shackles that unbridled reliance on credit can create.  What a novel concept for an American; buy only what you can afford!

Souk Al-Waqif (Doha, Qatar)

Souk-time!

The grandeur of many of the malls in the Arabian Peninsula initially left me nonplussed, incredulous over the seemingly unending supply of designer goods.  Shopping in western culture is closely associated with the woman as consumer, perpetuating the perception that all women love to wander the aisles, voraciously spending as they shuttle from shop to shop.  While I never fell into this stereotypical role, I did become particularly intrigued with the opportunity to expand my shopping experience and visit a traditional Arab souk.  Arab souks, I would find, were veritable hodgepodges of intricate alleys and pathways housing shops sitting shoulder to shoulder bursting with exotic wares.  Riyadh, known for its lavish malls, luxurious chandelier shops, and abundant fresh fish markets (due to the proximity of the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf), is also noted for its teeming souks such as Bat-Ha, the Kuwaiti souk, and Dira, one of the oldest traditional souks in the city.

Tablahs (Arabic drums) at Souk ~ Doha, Qatar

Ouds (Arabic Guitars)

The tapestry of souk shopping is tightly interwoven with the art of bargaining, which is not only accepted, but widely expected.  On my inaugural visit to Dira, two venerable and wrinkled men bartered for ancient daggers and swords in a remote corner of the souk, leaving me rooted to the spot, unable to turn away for fear of missing a moment of these charged and fascinating negotiations. Similar scenes are common across the patchwork of shops, laden with fierce exchanges of fluttering arms and pitched voices between customer and vender who haggle over the cost of a pair of sandals or a sheesha pipe.  Bargaining is not purely a male prerogative; women regularly practice their gamesmanship at reducing the ante for several meters of silk fabric or intricately adorned handbags.  While I am commonly taken aback by the swift and heated dickering, my husband is quite proficient at the craft of bargaining; it must be either “in the blood” or honed by years of practice growing up in Lebanon and Jordan.  Bargaining is not typically an accepted practice in typical U.S. stores with their set inventories, fixed prices, and company budget constraints.  However, after living in the Middle East for the last eight years, we have found some success with bargaining in the U.S.  Just two summers ago, my husband and I visited Lowe’s home department store where we practiced our haggling skills to secure lower prices on garden furniture for our new home.  Surprisingly, I even recently found myself successfully bargaining at Hamad hospital in Doha for a lower price to acquire medical records.

Vegetable souk in Qatar.

Like Riyadh, Doha has a multitude of souks. Some contain a wide assortment of goods and others cater to a specific clientele, such as the gold souk, livestock souk, fish market, or computer souk.  The Al-Shabrah market, with its immeasurable quantities of vegetables, fruits, and eclectic mix of people, takes the concept of a U.S. “farmer’s market” to another level. Al-Najmah is devoted primarily to household goods and hardware; it is informally reserved for men, making me feel a little like an intruder when my husband and I visit.  As a newcomer to Doha, I was excited to experience Souk Al-Waqif, “the new, old souk,” a mass of shops brimming with nearly every good imaginable.  The scent of incense infiltrates the winding alleyways, and the crush of women and their children in tow makes for a frenetic and spirited atmosphere.  Older men in turbans expertly propel wheelbarrows in the narrow channels of the souk, and the doughy smell of cardboard thin saj bread wafts around you as it sizzles on large flat half-dome heating elements suspended over wood blocks.  Scattered amongst the hearty chaos are Arab men of all ages sitting on plastic chairs in small alleys; plumes of smoke rising from their sheesha pipes as they sip aromatic cardamom coffee and mint tea, conversing with one another about the day’s events.

Ros Cutts

“I eagerly looked forward to my first experience of souk shopping, and it did not disappoint me,” remarked a British expatriate friend, Ros, of her first souk experience. “Wandering around the slender passageways of Souq Al-Waqif I was introduced to the blended smell of spices, and stalls filled with rolls of colorful fabric waiting to be tailored into dresses and other garments. I was fascinated by the collection of falcons and falcon paraphernalia available in a small courtyard area.”  Ros continued, “Leaving with visions of Lawrence of Arabia I was somewhat startled to find western-style restaurants and coffee chains dotted in between the traditional craft stalls and Arabic-style restaurants.  It seems a shame to have not preserved the original architecture and to have allowed western food outlets to open in the souk.” She paused in retelling this and asked with a laugh, “Perhaps I’m just old fashioned?  In any case, I enjoyed my shopping experience at the souk and look forward to using my spices and returning to sample some of the delicious looking food from a traditional Arabic restaurant.”

On one of our initial trips to the Souk Al-Waqif I had been taking my time to saunter along the streets, exploring the varied vendors and their wares when I heard a throaty voice at my shoulder. “Marhaba, bedak chai aw qahwa?”  Realizing the voice did not belong to my husband, I turned to find a smiling old man, nodding his head vigorously and offering something in his map-creased hand.  I realized he was offering my husband and me mint tea.  I thought it odd at first, even mildly invasive, and I hesitated thinking that he was trying to get me to buy something I didn’t want. However, I learned that this was customary and realized that this type of tradition made the souk experience unique, much more than simply an excursion.  Souks by nature, rhythm, and flow encourage its patrons to slow down and immerse themselves in a kind of cultural shopping rather than simply surrendering to the shopping culture as many do in U.S. malls and stores.

Pam Weissen

My Scottish expatriate friend, Pam, also expressed how she favored souk shopping:  “My children love and look forward to visiting the souks. They save up their pocket money and love to spend on Arabic souvenirs and have bought everything from camel ornaments, to perfume pots, to musical instruments!  The Arab shopkeepers are so warm and friendly especially to the children and whether they buy or just look, I find them patient and kind.  The boys also love a bit of a barter which is always in good spirit.  I also feel that my children are safe and we can walk around and truly relax without the worries of the West, i.e., uptight shopkeepers and the concern that someone will snatch our children.  In contrast, if  I look round and can’t find my youngest, no doubt some shopkeeper will be chatting with him, or as happened the other day, an old lady in a veil, seeing my anxiety, smiled and pointed to another shop to let me know that he was there – a really nice gesture.”

Living in the Middle East has afforded me the freedom and singular opportunity to not only shop for the practical new dress at the mall, but to also “shop” for new experiences at the souk.  Happily, I am never a disappointed consumer in either place.

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First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage?

“We don’t have the freedom to choose our husband, you know,” eighteen year-old Sherifa said matter-of-factly. “When he comes, he knocks on the door, he comes to my dad, asks for my hand, and proposes.  My dad comes to consult me and then I get to see him like with the hijab on, and we sit together with his family and mine, and speak so I can understand him and he can understand me.  And if he’s the match, we get married and then that’s the end of the story.” She paused before punctuating her final pronouncement on the matter, “And then our children get married.”

Qataris and women from other Gulf Arab nations do not have the luxury of trolling for mates on popular dating sites such as Match.com. In a region where signs of progressive, western influence are everywhere, the dating game remains steeped in centuries of tradition.  My husband and I relocated to Saudi Arabia from Washington, DC in 2000, and later to Qatar in 2004 to pursue a new life and career opportunities.  As a writer, I have made a concerted effort to become familiar with the region’s customs, trends, and most significantly, its people. In my venture to learn more about the young women of Qatar, in particular, and how they negotiate the creep of westernization with age-old Arab traditions, I interviewed a group of young female Qatari students.  Among the variety of topics we discussed, dating and marriage drew strong reactions.

Mixed-Gender Arab Wedding

On any given night in most American cities, nervous and excited single men and women gather in boisterous sports bars and crowded restaurants.  Amidst the white noise of unyielding chatter or televised basketball games,people pass between one another, doing their best to crack jokes and make a great first impression in the hopes it may lead to that coveted first date. Little do they know that halfway around the world their Arab peers are experiencing their own, much different version of dating.

For most Arabs, courtship unfolds in a pragmatic, systematic manner. However, specific customs vary broadly by region.  For example, conservative Gulf region countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman follow conventional dictates of arranged marriage rituals in the Arab culture.  These six nations with ties going back to the ancient Najd Arab tribes of Saudi Arabia, or Yemen, ascribe to “khaleeji” culture: each country shares the same dialect, clothes, food, music, and the more traditional courting customs.

Even sophisticated young Qatari women like Sherifa, currently studying business and law at Swansea University in Wales, have strong beliefs regarding courtship and marital practices.  While moderating a school debate on courtship and arranged marriage, sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, Sherifa voiced her resolute views.  One of the panelists, a young, Qatari male who argued in favor of Qataris dating in the same way that Westerners date, drew her ire. “He’s a Qatari, and he wants to date!” Sherifa recalled, her eyes flashing.  “I don’t know what he was thinking.  He really gave me a headache that day.”  I asked Sherifa to elaborate. Repositioning her headscarf, Sherifa continued, “It’s against our culture, and not everyone absorbs the idea that now we have the freedom to do everything. Like if I want to see Jassim, let’s say, like know him better, more than a friend but as a boyfriend, it’s like ‘A’ib’ (shame) on you to do that.”

Entertainment at Mixed-Gender Arab Wedding

Gender segregation plays a role in this mindset.  Sherifa, like many young, unmarried Qataris, spent most of her formative, adolescent years with other girls before entering college and the world of co-ed campuses.  I asked the other women for their responses to Sherifa’s opinions, wondering if they shared her traditionalist notions.  Fatma, a twenty-two year-old, well-spoken Qatari woman studying journalism at Qatar Foundation’s Northwestern University offered, “Well, I wouldn’t go for an arranged marriage blindly.  I’d rather know the guy from school, or work, or actually have had a conversation with him, you know, not real dating, just you know publicly and then having him go to my parents.”  Mouza, also attending Northwestern University in Qatar, chimed in, “It’s like big proof that they love you, if they go to your parents when they propose.” The other girls nodded in assent.

The closest thing to dating in Gulf countries takes the form of a pre-marital meeting between the bride and groom that takes place in the bride’s home within direct view of family members.  In contrast, Arab countries outside of the Gulf region, particularly countries like Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan exercise greater leniency regarding the tradition of arranged marriage.  In some cases, young men and women have a say in the selection of a marital partner.  Despite this courtship liberalism, dating normally becomes restricted to public places with a chaperon in tow, usually from the bride’s family.

Whether inside or outside the Gulf region, courtship and matrimony are deeply intertwined with the concept of family; kinfolk take intimate roles in nearly every step of the courtship process.  The business of seeking out a potential female mate for nephews, sons, or grandsons typically falls to aunts, grandmothers, and mothers.  This community of women may also make the initial contact with the prospective young woman’s family, usually her mother.  Fathers, however, sign the final marriage agreement, along with the bride and groom and witnesses.  To westerners, this practice may seem oppressive or even overly intrusive. However, for couples in the Gulf region, this hands-on involvement often strengthens family ties and brings the benefit of parents’ experience to the new couple.

According to the young Qatari women I interviewed, weddings, parties, and other gatherings are all common venues for this important search.  “Women only” weddings provide a particularly good opportunity for these family members to “scout out” potential marriage material.  These weddings find scores of unmarried young women glamorously attired in formfitting, low-cut, luxurious gowns, gyrating the night away on raised platforms in the center of overflowing ballrooms to popular Arab music.  If a young lady is lucky, her mother may just receive a call the following day from a wedding participant.  If there is a good vibe between the women this normally leads to the next step in the process: protracted family meetings.

In Qatar and the Gulf nations it is compulsory that families of the bride and groom communicate or meet first, before the prospective bride and groom are introduced, in order to determine the suitability of the union.  These meetings precede the Khutuba, or engagement ritual; the Melcha (Aqed Zawaaj), the marriage agreement/contract; and ultimately the wedding celebration.  The visits between the families provide the time to probe the laundry list of desirable characteristics from the appearance and personalities of the prospective mate’s family, to the career of the father and rest of the family members, to the family’s wealth: The groom’s father is an engineer, for example; this bodes well in the bride’s mother’s eyes.  The bride has a brother working at a prestigious law firm in London; this gives the groom’s father a confident feeling about the match.

Eighteen year-old Sara recounted that her sister’s match followed in this traditional vein.  Sara is a soft-spoken girl with delicate facial features, currently studying graphics and fashion design at Virginia Commonwealth at Education City in Qatar.  “His mother saw my sister at a wedding,” Sara said. “She thought my sister was really beautiful and a good girl, and that they should propose to her for their son.  So, they came to my house, and they told my family, we would like to propose to your sister, to your daughter.  This is how we get to know them and we found out he was a good guy, my brother in-law.” Sara paused briefly, smiling, “He is really a nice guy, and they got married.”

For Sara, having her family in general and her father, in particular, closely involved in the courtship process is crucial. “My Dad really knows me,” Sara stated.  “Like my brother-in- law, when he proposed to my sister, my father made sure he was going to allow my sister to drive and continue her education. That’s why I think my Dad’s opinion is very important.”

Despite the cultural constraints upon her, and her strong views on formal dating, Sherifa believes she will meet her future husband at work.  I asked her if she felt she would need the permission of her father before she married that “special person.”  Taking a sip of bottled water, Sherifa replied, “Maybe if I ask my Dad’s permission it would be easier for me, because even if I’m married to this guy who I love I would still be thinking about my family, because family is like the most important thing in our society, our beliefs and our culture and everything.”  Sherifa continued undeterred, “Because I’m carrying his name.  For us here in this society, we have to respect that I’m carrying my father’s name.”

The process of creating marriage is different for East and West cultures, yet it seems a universal mindset persists for women of this generation who are impacted by global and cultural changes.  Marriage, arranged or otherwise, might just take a backseat to career pursuits and individual growth for an expanding segment of the female Qatari population.  Sara, pursuing a career in graphic arts and fashion design conceded, “Maybe after 10 or 20 years I’ll see myself married and having babies.”  Similarly,eighteen year-old, Mouza, who hopes to own Al-Jazeera (TV News Broadcasting Company) someday, told me she never really thought about finding a future husband. “My biggest concern now is to finish school and get my degree, and then I’ll start thinking about that stuff,” she said.  “I have more important things to think about.”

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Inte Omri (You Are My Life) by Umm Khultum

A photo for Umm Kulthum singing on a stage.

Umm Khultum

Umm Khultum, an Egyptian native who lived from the turn of the last century until 1975, and who was considered by many in Egypt, and the Middle East, in general, to be the greatest singer of all time, sang the song, “Inte Omri” (You Are My Life), for the first time in 1964.  In her prime, Umm Khultum, (which means ‘mother of Khultum’), would sing two or three songs on stage, with certain lines repeated over and over again, that could last up to four hours depending on her creative mood and the reaction of the audience.

In 1944 Umm Khultum was decorated with the most prestigious level of orders (nishan el kamal) by King Farouk I, a privilege normally bestowed on royalty and politicians.  It is said that Umm Khultum could sing as low as the second octave and as high as the seventh octave, and that her vocal chords produced around 14,000 vibrations per second.  Reportedly, the power of her voice rendered commercial microphones (for singing) ineffective at close range, requiring Umm Khultum to stand one to three meters away.  Umm Khultum’s orchestra was composed of musicians who played the oud, (pear-shaped Arab guitar), violins, a zither-like instrument (qanun), and small tambourines (riqqs).

The love and admiration for Umm Khultum, “Star of the East,” grew through her first Thursday live radio events in Cairo that began in the 1930’s and ran through 1973 during which time much of the Arab world would be glued to their radios, and was evident at her “sold out” concerts throughout the years.  Even the Egyptian royal family attended her public concerts, and arranged for private events.  Thirty-six years after her death, Umm Khultum’s record sales still continue at around one million copies per year.

Umm Khultum sang countless songs of love and loss but this particular song, Inte Omri, is one of her best known and most romantic.  Like many other Arabs, my husband, Bishara, a native of Lebanon, loves Umm Khultum, and holds special memories of listening to this remarkable singer through the years, first as a young child in Jordan and Lebanon, and later as an adult after he emigrated to the U.S.  I recently sat down with Bishara to listen to the song and to talk with him about what it meant to him as an Arab man.  The English translation of the song is below.

Inte Omri (You Are My Life) – Sung by Umm Khultum  

(from: http://www.shira.net/music/lyrics/inte-omri.htm, Translation by Hani Guirguis, Provided by Yasmina Ramzy)  

Your eyes took me back to my days that are gone.  They taught me to regret the past and its wounds.

Whatever I saw before my eyes saw you was a wasted life.  How could they consider that part of my life?

With your light, the dawn of my life started.  How much of my life before you was lost?  It is a wasted past, my love.

My heart never saw happiness before you.  My heart never saw anything in life other than the taste of pain and suffering.

I started only now to love my life.  And started to worry that my life would run away from me.

Every happiness I was longing for before you.  My dreams they found it in the light of your eyes.

Oh my heart’s life… You are more precious than my life.  Why I didn’t meet your love a long time ago?

Whatever I saw before my eyes saw you was a wasted life.  How could they consider that part of my life?

You are my life that starts its dawn with your light.  The beautiful nights and the yearning and the great love from a long time ago the heart is holding for you.

Taste the love with me bit from bit from the kindness of my heart that is longing for the kindness of your heart.

Bring your eyes close so that my eyes can get lost in the life of your eyes.  Bring your hands so that my hands will rest in the touch of your hands.

My love, come, and enough.  What we missed is not little, oh love of my soul.

Whatever I saw before my eyes saw you was a wasted life.  How could they consider that part of my life?  You are my life that starts its dawn with your light.

You are more precious than my days.  You are more beautiful than my dreams,

Take me to your sweetness — Take me away from the universe.  Far away, far away.  I and you far away, far away. Alone.

With love, our days will awaken.  We spend the nights longing for each other.

I reconciled with days because of you.  I forgave the time because of you.

With you I forgot the pains.  And I forgot with you my misery.

Your eyes took me back to my days that are gone.  They taught me to regret the past and its wounds.

Whatever I saw before my eyes saw you was a wasted life.  How could they consider that part of my life?  You are my life that starts its dawn with your light.

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Interviewing Bishara # 1

Interviewing Bishara # 2

Me:  What are your overall impressions or feelings about this song, Bishara?

Bishara (Answer):  I first heard Inte Omri when I was a little boy in Mafraq, Jordan, back in 1964, and did not know what it meant.  At the time, I only liked and appreciated the sound of the music, not the words.  I especially liked it, because my mother liked it.  The first thing that amused and interested me about this song, was watching my Mom in deep thought, her eyes staring far, far away.  But I still did not understand what was so special about this song.  For me, when I was a young person, the meaning of the song was simply wrapped around my deep thoughts about my Mom and where her thoughts travelled when she heard this song.  My Mom would typically listen to Umm Khultum at around 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon when she was finished with her housework.  As I became older, and met you, (Michele), I would play the song for you (you were my girlfriend at the time), and you stared at me, as I spaced out like my mother used to do when I was young.  That was the time I figured out that Umm Khultum was not only a legend and the “star of the Middle East,” as many Arabs called her, but that the writers of her songs were simply geniuses.

Me:  Yes, I remember those times and how enthralled you were with the music.  I knew it had to be special, but at the time, the music sounded rather discordant and melancholy, and although I wanted to, it was difficult for me to develop an appreciation for it.  It wasn’t until we were in the Arabian Peninsula years later when I would observe Arab friends listening, discussing, and dancing to the music that I began to have a better understanding of, and appreciation for, Inte Omri and other Umm Khultum songs. 

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Me: Can you tell me in more detail what you think this song means for you and other Arab people

Bishara (Answer):  It’s very romantic, from the title itself, “You Are My Life,” not “My Love,” not “My Friend,” not my “Partner,” but “You are My Life.”

Me: You know, I also think that this sort of song that Umm Khultum was so good at, was, and is, popular, due, at least in part, to the restrictions on mixing between the sexes in the Arab world.  I think maybe this song represents an idealized image of love for those, especially younger people, who were not allowed to socialize or mix with the opposite sex.  And for more mature women it might represent a long lost love, or the feelings of love when they were younger.

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Me:  Please tell me more about how your own personal experiences relating to this song, and to your own feelings of love as a younger person.

Bishara (Answer):  First of all, I really liked Umm Khultum’s accompanying orchestra music when I was young, because my sisters would belly dance to this music when it played on the radio.  Another reason I suggested we write about this song is because it brings back special memories to me as I became a teenager when I began listening to Inte Omri over and over again, and started to understand the meaning of romance from the words of this song.  I remember at age 15, I wrote some lines of this song on a small piece of paper, wadded it up, and threw it towards a female student who I had a crush on as we were both headed to our separate schools.  Schools at the time were segregated by gender.  Actually, it was a rather common occurrence when I was younger for both boys and girls to write words from Umm Khultum songs on a piece of paper, ball up the piece of paper, and throw it at the object of their desire.

Umm Khultum was really remarkable, because her words could express what you wanted to say but couldn’t find your own words to express.  You felt like Umm Khultum’s songs were written about, and for, you, and her words had a way of hitting you in your deepest core.  A Jordanian friend told me one time that listening to Umm Khultum was like falling in love for the first time.

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Me:  What about the details of the individual lines of the song?

Bishara (Answer):  Well, in the first four lines itself, the words are very strong.  Umm Khultum is saying “How can you count my life before I met you?”  She is saying before I met you my life was a complete waste.  She continues with saying that ever since you came to my life, I started to enjoy my life, and started to understand the taste of happiness.

Me:  But even with this joy, she is indicating that she is afraid that her happy life will leave her.  It seems that somehow she knows these feelings of love may not last. 

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Me:  Also, she mentions her lover’s eyes several times.  I know that in the Arab world eyes are important.  I remember when you, yourself, used to tell me I had beautiful eyes, like a gypsy’s.

Bishara (Answer):  Maybe it’s because in some parts of Arab societies women can only show their eyes.

Me:  Yes, and for special occasions like women-only events, like weddings, especially, they really show off their eyes with beautiful and heavy makeup. 

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Bishara (Answer):  I always enjoy listening to this song, however, there is something more special about it when I hear it in the evening.  I think because I am fully relaxed and feel most at home, and can absorb the words and their meaning.  I actually feel intoxicated by both her voice and words at these times.

Me:  Yes, I notice that you especially enjoy listening to Umm Khultum’s music at full volume while smoking sheesha. . . . You always tell me you’re reminiscing about Jordan and Lebanon.

_____________________________________________________ 

Me:  At one point in the song, Inte Omri, Umm Khultum is saying that she was in love with her lover long before she met him.  Are all of Umm Khultum’s songs romantic like this one?  If not, what are the subjects of some of her other songs?

Bishara (Answer):  When she was a young girl most of her songs were about religion/Islam, but as she became more popular she became the romantic singer for the Eastern world.  During this time she became as well known in non-Arab countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, Turkey, as she was in the Arab world and her home country of Egypt.   

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Me:  How do Umm Khultum’s songs compare to the popular Arab songs of today? 

Bishara (Answer):  You just feel as though Umm Khultum’s songs are more genuine; simple but with depth and meaning.  Also, what makes Umm Khultum more special is she was for a period of time, one of the few female singers in the Arab world.  These days, many of the female Arab singers have the same sound and similar lyrics about flirting and falling in love; but you can tell there’s not really a lot of depth like Umm Khultum.  Unlike many of the current popular Arab singers, Umm Khultum’s voice and music is so unique you always know it’s her singing.  Also, while there is great importance placed on the attractiveness and sexiness of Arab female singers nowadays, Umm Khultum was not attractive but her voice, the words of her songs, and her charisma outshone her physical appearance.  I’ve always thought that Umm Khultum was the woman who made three out of four Arab women drop a tear, and perhaps one out of four Arab men, as well.  Another thing about her style of singing is that she never, ever, sang a song without a scarf in her hands, which she pulled on so hard that many times the scarf would be torn to pieces while she was singing.

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Me:  Umm Khultum is saying that now when she looks at her lover’s eyes she remembers the past and all its wounds.  You know, Bishara, when I first met you I remember you saying my eyes were like the stars and my face like the moon.  At the time, I thought it sounded sweet, but wasn’t really sure why you were comparing my face to the heavens.  When you began explaining the words to Umm Khultum, though, it became clearer that Arab people are very romantic and use a lot of symbolism when they speak of love.  And it became even more clear when we moved to Saudi Arabia, and later Qatar, and I started to hear (and absorb) Arab music from more of a cultural perspective, which added another layer of understanding.

Bishara (Answer):  Remember I would even call you tueberny (bury me), ounie (my eyes), hayatee (my life), albee (my heart), ghalieh (my expensive one), and, of course omri (my life).  As you know, the Lebanese are known to be some of the most romantic people in the Arab world!

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Me: Why do Arab people use these sorts of expressions to convey their love?  And is it only from man to woman, or could it also be from woman/man to child, or woman to woman, or man to man?

Bishara (Answer):   Because we are very emotional people, like the Italians.  These words of endearment can be to and from anybody, not only man to woman, but a woman to a man, a woman or man to a child, or woman to woman, or man to man (as in the case of habeebi or habeeptie).

Me:  Oh, yes, like when men call each other habeebie (“sweetheart” to male), and women call each other habeeptie (“sweetheart” to female).  I remember how strange I thought it was when I first heard you call other men, relatives and friends alike, “habeebie,” or “my sweetheart.”  . . . Now it seems like second nature!

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View videos of Umm Khultum’s Inte Omri at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjfH8a8wDOU

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4OYXOv8U8c&feature=share

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A Day in the Life of Young Qatari Women

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.

Qatari House # 1

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.

Arab Food # 1

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.”

Arab Food # 2

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.”

Majless # 1

Majlis in Tent Outside Qatari Home

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.”

Majless # 2

Majlis at “Bait Ali” (Jordan)

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.

Qatari House # 2

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.”

Sedu Picture

Majlis in Wadi Rum (Jordan)

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.”

Qatar House # 3

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

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.  This article focuses on the girls’ views on wearing the abaya (long black cloak).

During my first foray into the Arab world, on a trip with my husband (a Lebanese native) to visit his relatives in Jordan and Lebanon in 1996, I was quite startled at the sight of a woman enveloped in black, from head to toe, standing against a far wall, waiting in the gate area, as were we, for our flight from JFK to Amman, Jordan.  This woman, seemingly devoid of personality or expression, melting into the background, was wearing not only an abaya, but a coal-colored face covering that hid her eyes, and black gloves.  I found myself having to stifle any outward signs of consternation and surprise, although I did manage a few prolonged sideways glances.  This image and the associated feelings of curiosity tinged with bewilderment stuck with me for several years until it became part of the “everyday” after we moved from Washington, DC to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in November 2000.

By September 2004 we relocated from Saudi Arabia to the small, yet progressive, Gulf nation of Qatar.  While accustomed to seeing women dressed in long black robes, I remained curious about how Gulf Arab women, themselves, felt about wearing the obligatory abaya.  During the course of my time with five young Qatari women who were gracious enough to grant me extended interviews focusing on topics such as how they balanced their traditions with western influence and their thoughts on pursuing a career versus marriage, I had the opportunity to ask their views on wearing the abaya.

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Self-confident eighteen year-old Sherifa Hammam, a student of business and law at Swansea University in Wales, explained, “You first wear the abaya when you reach puberty.”  Her eyes intent on mine, Sherifa continued, “I didn’t see any problem with wearing the abaya.  I was cool with it, because I believed in it, you know.  Not only because it’s our social custom, it’s our religion, first.  Our religion says that you have to cover your head, and wear something conservative.  I first started wearing the hijab in grade-8, and when I reached grade-10 I wore the abaya.  So I did have my time for fun.”

Reserved and soft-spoken, Sara Abdulghani, a student at Virginia Commonwealth , divulged, “When I was really young, like ten or eleven years old, I wanted to wear the abaya, but my mom didn’t want me to.  I was crying to my mom, ‘Please, I want an abaya.’ I wanted to look older.”  Taking a sip of water, Sara resumed, “When I first wore an abaya, I was really happy.  It was so amazing.  I felt so high.  I was like ‘Yeah, I’m wearing an abaya.’”

Two Arab Women in Abayas at Souk

Sara, adjusting her eyeglasses, maintained that these days, “I feel really comfortable in the abaya, but then sometimes it’s kind of annoying.  If you’re sitting down and you want to move it always sticks in the wheels of the chair.  But, you know, in our culture and religion you have to wear something decent.  And not everything in my closet is decent.  Like if you have skinny jeans, or something tight, you just wear the abaya, to cover over it and become decent.”

Currently studying Jounalism at Northwestern University, bold and resolute, eighteen year-old Mouza Abdulaziz, declared she was around thirteen when she started wearing the abaya.  “At first I didn’t like it.  Because back then I couldn’t run around or act crazy, but, in time, I learned to love it.”  Mouza highlighted the importance of accessorizing the abaya asserting, “I think some women look extremely beautiful in the abaya, especially when they know how to present themselves with the handbag and the shoes, even the way they wear their headscarf.”  Like Sara, Mouza feels the abaya can make daily fashion choices that much easier.  Her hands folded on the table, Mouza remarks, “Okay, when you’re a teenager and you have to go to school and you don’t have a uniform, you’re like, ‘Oh what should I wear today?’ and sometimes you get to the point where you don’t want to wear anything in your closet.  So, when you wear the abaya, you don’t have to worry about the clothes underneath.”

Two Arab Women Dressed Up in Abayas

While the abaya might make the daily challenge of what to wear less difficult for Gulf Arab women as compared to their western counterparts, there are, increasingly, distinct fashion statements Arab women can make with the abaya that include quite intricate and colorful designs.  Twenty-two year-old Fatma Ibrahim, also studying Journalism at Northwestern University, however, appreciates the simplicity of a purely black-toned abaya.  Fatma renders, “I like the abaya, but I don’t like colored embellishments on them, and mine are mostly black, if you notice.  Even if I have designs with lace or something it would all be in black.  I feel it’s more elegant that way, and lots of embellishments can look a bit tacky.  Not too many people know how to balance between elegance and tacky.  So, I just try to stay on the safe side with the black, and abayas are usually supposed to be black, all black.”

I was curious if the young women ever felt compelled to wear the niqab, full black face covering.  I had seen older, more conservative, Qatari women wearing the niqab, covering not only with an abaya and headscarf, but their entire face – their eyes disappearing behind the black veil.  Sara, her dark opals studying me, replied, “When I go to a wedding party or something and I have a lot of make-up on my face, yeah, I like to cover it.  Because you know in our religion they say you’re not supposed to show your face with a lot of make-up, and I do cover my face, but a lot of people don’t do it – but I like to do it.”  The wedding party that Sara speaks of is a “women only” wedding, a tradition in the Gulf region.  Sara added, “It is polite for my religion to cover my face, because some men stare a lot.”

Woman Wearing Abaya (Two Men to Side) at Souk

I asked the girls about the traditions on when it is appropriate to wear the abaya.  I knew young women are required to wear the abaya in public settings where men are present, but what was the tradition for wearing the abaya when around male relatives?  The girls disclosed that they did not have to wear the abaya around their uncles, but they did need to be covered around male cousins.  Mouza explained that the abaya must be worn around those men you could possibly marry, which includes cousins but not uncles.  In the Arab Gulf region it is not only common for cousins to marry, but it is encouraged and is considered commendable, as it makes the family circle tighter.  According to Sara, “In my family, when our gatherings include just my uncles, I don’t cover my hair in front of them.  Usually on Fridays, though, I wear anything I like.  I like to be looking good in front of my female cousins.  We’re all dressed up and we sit and we chat but sometimes we have my cousins, like the older men, so we have to cover our hair.  If they come inside we just cover our hair and cover ourselves and we sit with them.”

Fatma, pulling a wisp of hair away from her face, conveys, “I only wear the abaya when there are male relatives coming and going.  Like, for example, around my cousins, my older cousins, the guys, but not my uncles.  Like on Fridays when the male cousins are coming over, they tell us and we put on our abayas.  Before they come in they say ‘Okay I’m coming in,’ like they knock first.  So, if you’re not covered, cover.”  Fatma reveals that she wears “mostly jeans and t-shirts” when around other women and her uncles.

Me in an Abaya at Qatar Foundation

According to Mouza, her tone becoming animated, when women gather in the home, “We wear whatever we want, because it’s all girls and women.  If a male relative is coming in the home, an uncle or older cousin, we just leave and go to another room and sit there until they leave.  And the men here in Qatar if they know that there are women sitting in the room they will just say ‘hi’ to the older people like my aunts and then they just leave.  They know that we’re there.”  Mouza added that the men have their own majlis (sitting area for social functions) and typically assemble there, separate from the women.

It is clear that these young women who are attending prestigious American universities in Qatar, and who have lofty career ambitions, continue to hold their native traditions close to their hearts – as they should.  Thank you to Mouza, Sherifa, Fatma, and Sarah for helping to demystify the abaya!

“Family Matters” in the Arab Gulf

I had the good fortune to interview five young Qatari women two years ago about everything from their daily lives, to their academic and career aspirations, their thoughts on the standing of women in the Arab world and the effects of westernization on their forward-looking Arab Gulf nation.  The young women, who ranged in age from eighteen to twenty-two, are now attending universities at Qatar Foundation’s Education City in Doha, Qatar, including Northwestern and Virginia Commonwealth, and Swansea University in Wales.    

During the course of my interviews “family” (or a sense of “tribe”) was an inherent underlying theme.  Qatari families, and Arab families, in general, tend to have large numbers, as family is an important facet of life, and is dictated by both culture/tradition and religion.  According to twenty-two year old Fatma Ibrahim, her eyes reflecting the afternoon sun through the small conference room window, “Families are important, because the reputation, our reputation plays, a role in everything.  It carries the honor and stuff.”  Fatma continued, “For every family, the last name is very important, you know, and the family doesn’t want anything to tarnish that image and their family name.  Because it’s not just you, it’s your whole family, everyone who has your last name is in jeopardy if you do something wrong, so that’s a big responsibility.”  Sherifa Hammam, her voice rising, added, “It’s written in our religion we have to be bonded together by family, because this is how we’re going to survive in life.  We need someone to share with us our happy moments, sad moments, to be around, you know.”

Arab Children

The girls I profiled had between 4-5 siblings living under one roof, although it is not uncommon for families to have as many as 5-10 children in one house.  According to Fatma, “Children are considered a blessing.  Yes, it’s a blessing from God.”  Sherifa indicated, “People believe that children will bring them joy and happiness even more than getting married.”  Extended family members, including cousins, Aunts and Uncles, grandparents, and even second or third wives and their families, live in close proximity to each other, either within blocks of each other, or sometimes in a communal compound environment.  The first friends of young Qataris are often their cousins.

A smile spreading across her face, eighteen year-old Sara Abdulghani related that her favorite times as a child were, “Friday nights, family nights, because I would get with my family and all my cousins are there.  It’s always fun to be with my family.  My cousins are like my sisters and my best friends.  We would sit around and watch a movie together and there would be a lot of popcorn.  Usually we would talk about ‘what are you going to wear, what are you going to wear?’  It’s just my family, and since we didn’t have boys in our school there was not a lot to talk about.”

Me with Arab Children

Similarly, Mouza Abdulaziz, shifting in her seat, revealed her best times in childhood were, “When I was with my cousins, because I mostly grew up around my family, my cousins and my sisters.  Every Thursday night we have this tradition, like most families, where the whole family would go to the main house, which is the grandfather’s house, and we’d all sit there and see each other for a few hours, and have a big dinner.”  Mouza continued, “My aunts, and uncle and their kids, and their kids’ kids, and usually old family friends who are almost like family would also come by.  They would all be there.  There could be 30 people.”

Fatma also recounted happy times with family and cousins.  “On Thursday and Friday we’d go after school directly to the farm.  We had a farm, my grandfather’s farm and we’d sleep over, everyone would come there – cousins, and my grandmother’s two best friends, and all their kids and grandchildren.  We’d just run around with the kids and we rode bicycles.  We had cows and two Arabian horses that were beautiful.  We didn’t ride them.  They weren’t tame.  We also had camels, donkeys, chickens and ducks.  The farm was outside of Doha in the middle of the country, about 45 minutes away.  I loved sleeping overnight there.  We’d take lots of videos and we’d watch them there, like funny Kuwaiti plays – the older ones, like from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and Disney movies – Beauty and the Beast, I love that, and Aladdin.”

Qatari Man with Young Son

The eldest son in an Arab family plays a pivotal role in the household hierarchy.  Mouza, her eyes intent on mine said, “The eldest son is the one who usually takes over the family if something happens to the father.  In this case, the eldest son is going to be the one in charge of looking over his little sisters, his little brothers – what they need, what they don’t need.  So, he’s going to basically take care of them.”

A couple of the Qatari girls I interviewed had fathers who had a second wife.  Sara, adjusting her headscarf remarked, “Yeah, my father he has two wives, and each family live in a different household.  I think it’s more common to live in different houses.”  Sara went on to say, “(Our two families) we do socialize, you know, like we will go to their house and they come to our house.   It’s fun because I have a lot of brothers and sisters from their side – I have like seven or eight, I can’t even count them, and whenever I’m bored, I’ll be calling them one after one.  Like come pick me up, you know, and it’s really good.”  When I asked Sara if she thought about her step-sisters and brothers in the same way as her immediate siblings, she said, “I would say so, yeah, but there’s always this connection between me and my real family.”

Four Young Women at Qatar Foundation

When asked if her family and the family of her father’s second wife ever visited each other and socialized, Mouza said, “Yes, we visit each other.  Like on the way home from school I had to pass by their house so if I wasn’t tired or anything, I would say, ‘Okay, stop the car,’ and go see my brothers and my sisters, and they would come visit us too.  That’s the good thing, we always meet and things like that.”  Responding to the query about how her father splits his time between his two families, Mouza responded, “Well, my Dad used to spend the time with us, because we were the younger ones.  He would live in our house because we were young and the children of his other family were in high school, so they were able to understand why my father wasn’t in their house most of the time.  But nowadays, my Dad would visit his other family after the prayer at night, and he’d stay with them and sometimes we’d tag along.”  Mouza added, “It’s normal I think everywhere the father would like to stay with the young ones while they’re growing up to have a memory, or something, but then it doesn’t mean he disregards the rest.”

Sara summed up the feeling about family in Qatar, and the larger region, aptly when she said, “I think the best thing in my life is my family.  I’m very blessed to have my family.  With regard to my challenges, whenever I face a problem, I know I always have my family so I can learn and know more about who I really am.”

Young Gulf Arab Women: Viewpoints on Western Influence

This is the third of three articles I wrote in mid-2010 that profile five young Qatari women, four of whom are attending universities at Education City in Doha, Qatar, including Northwestern and Virginia Commonwealth, and the fifth who is attending Swansea University in Wales.  This article focuses on the effects of western influence on the everyday lives of these young Gulf Arab women, as well as their views on their changing world. 

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For Sherifa Hammam, an 18-year-old Qatari girl, a typical trip to the mall would not be complete without stopping into the Dolce & Gabbana store to browse their luxury handbags or cruising through the shoe boutique to pick up a pair of Converse sneakers, her mother or girlfriend by her side.  Sherifa’s shopping excursions are well-deserved outings, giving her a break from her rigorous academic schedule at Swansea University inWales.  Sherifa, along with four other young, Qatari women, is a recent graduate of the Academic Bridge Program at Education City in Doha. I had the privilege of conducting a series of interviews with these girls about their academic and professional pursuits, perceptions on cultural shifts in Qatar and the Gulf region, and their social activities. On this occasion, we temporarily suspended our conversation about global politics and classes to discuss a subject dear to many women’s hearts around the world: shopping.

Sherifa - 2nd Blog Post

Qatar’s traditional Arab marketplace, the renovated Souk Al-Waqif, may hold considerable fascination for the western expatriate,but it is the upscale malls and their couture stores that captivate the region’s young women.  In addition to shopping for jeans, tops, and handbags, Sherifa enjoys endless browsing for the perfect dress, preferred attire for the lavish “women only” social functions she attends.  Mouza Abdulaziz, one of her cohorts, currently majoring in Journalism at Northwestern University in Doha, shares Sherifa’s love affair with the mall.  For Mouza, McDonalds is a popular food destination and she admits spending money on an accessory many young girls want: phone credit. “I love to talk on the phone,” Mouza declares, “I love to text!”

These young women may harbor high career goals such as someday running Al-Jazeera or launching a new graphic design company, but when it comes to activities like shopping, spending time with friends, or enjoying social media sites like Facebook, the Qatari girls discover aspects of a universal culture that they share with international classmates.

Majless at Qatar Foundation

Eighteen year-old Fatma Abdallah, who isattending classes at Northwestern University at Education City where she is pursuing a degree in Journalism, lights up when the girls talk casually about their favorite pastimes outside of school.  She says “One of the simplest things I love is going back home at the end of the day, lying in my bed and just watching Friends.  Whenever I’m in a bad mood, Friends always makes me feel better.”  The girls nod in agreement. “I love Facebook,” Sherifa blurts. “Seriously,” she continues, her eyes widening, “I’m addicted to it. I could stay for hours chatting with my friends, and I also like surfing on the internet most of the time, sometimes for movies and sometimes for assignments.”  She laughs at her ownenthusiastic confession, and then, as if struck by the need to concede for her guilty pop culture pleasure, adds, “I also love my grandma.”

After living in Qatar for nearly seven years, I have observed the way this country incorporates western culture.  The proliferation of American universities at Qatar Foundation’s Education City along with other progressivecultural initiatives and programs make it one of the most open countries in the Gulf.  Other effects of Western influence are seen in the popularity of malls, fashion trends, internet accessibility, and technological devices such as DVD players and iPods.  I was curious if the young women felt that Qatar was becoming too westernized.  In an earlier interview session, one young woman went as far as to suggest that Qatari culture was “dying off.”  Twenty-two year-old Fatma Ibrahim, also enrolled at Northwestern University in Doha, spoke up to tackle this difficult question:  Maybe because of globalization Qatar is opening up, but I don’tthink it’s really dying off.  We’re still wearing the abaye, and we have a lot of cultural restraints.”  Fatma continued, “We take the good things from the West and we leave the things that don’t agree with us.  You know that’s how we can progress.”  Sherifa related another perspective,commenting that she felt uneasy about some aspects of the western presence in Qatar.  She pointed to the influence of fashion as impacting the culture: “The teenagers,” she began, “they’re wearing like jeans and t-shirts, and not always the traditional men’s thobe.”

Mouza - 2nd Blog Post

I asked the girls if they thought their lives would be different growing up in the U.S. or the West.  Mouza’s large, brown soulful eyes became intense and she remarked, “It’s a big thing when you’re 18 in the US.  That’s when you can move out; you can go live where you want.  Unlike here in Qatar, you could be 40 years-old and still living in your parents’ house.  It’s not a weird thing to see and it’s usually kind of nice.  You keep close to your family.”  Fatma Ibrahim gingerly placed her Turkish coffee cup into its saucer and paused before stating, “Your family are the people who you can rely on, and who will always be there for you.”  The girls smiled at one another, signaling their consensus.

Along with trendy stores and MP3 players, I wondered if western influence has raised the specter of greater freedoms.  I pursued this topic with the girls, inquiring about their desires to live a freer life in Qatar.  Crinkling the sides of her nose in consternation, Sherifa responded, “I think for this to happen, it’s hard because still it’s our culture.  Even if you think of us, as girls, having more freedom, like going out wherever we want, like in the States, and date whoever we want, it would be difficult for our culture to absorb the idea.” She hesitated before continuing, “I think, okay, I’m with the freedom, like everyone has the right to do whatever he or she wants, but there are limits.  Even in the States, there are limits.  So, I think we are having freedom now.  I think we have reached the level that we want to of freedom.”

Education City (Qatar Foundation) - Doha, Qatar

Education City (Qatar Foundation) – Doha, Qatar

The influx of new media plays a role in shaping the perspectives of these women about topics such as freedom, dating, fashion, and movies as much as it impacts how other cultures view the Arab region and the activities and views of their young inhabitants.  Fatma Ibrahim spoke to her concerns over the media’s influence: “I think that western people shouldn’t believe all that they see in the media, they should look into things, not just take whatever the media gives them.  We’re all the same, we all have the same problems, we all want the same things, and we all want to be loved.  Maybe we have some differences, but these differences are not so important.  Fatma Abdallah added, “We’re all just teenage girls trying to get through life.”

Education City - Arab Sign

After having spent many hours with these five young women I was touched by their openness, sensitivity, and awareness and impressed with their resolve to find their own, better way in a world that has become more complicated and challenging.  Near the end of our interview sessions, Sara spoke up again. “You know,” she began, “whenever I think that the west is totally different from us in Qatar, I remember this commercial on TV that said even though we’re different societies we still breathe the same air, we share the same land.  It really hit me, and I started crying.  For me, it was some kind of awakening to realize that we’re still living on the same earth.”