Deserts of the East and West

My first view of the Arabian Desert emerged through the window of our plane as we approached the Riyadh airport.  It was mid-February 2000, and my husband, Bishara, and I were travelling from Washington, DC with several small American firms exploring joint venture possibilities with Saudi companies.  My heart and mind were open to a life enriching adventure, the gleaming beige panorama holding the promise of a new, intriguing, chapter in our lives, away from what had become a chaotic, impersonal, and routine existence in Washington, DC.  The stretch of luminous sand transmuted, assimilating a smattering of cream colored concrete homes with flat roofs, and eventually looming glass-draped skyscrapers as we advanced to the landing strip.

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Arabian Desert

Having secured employment as the Management & Financial Reporting Supervisor at esteemed King Faisal Specialist Hospital, a 1,500 bed, 8,000 employee medical complex in the Kingdom’s capital, subsequent to months of missteps and travails, my first days in Riyadh were preoccupied with the tedious tasks of completing interminable paperwork and trotting back and forth to Family Medicine for requisite shots and medical tests.  My zeal for living in this unconventional locale waning under the weight of the bureaucratic challenge and palpable disinterest of my new boss, I oscillated between questioning if we had made the right move while finalizing hefty drifts of administrative forms, and reflections of a simpler, more definitive time in the U.S. among family and friends.

Wrestling with guilt surrounding my insistence the previous year over pursuing a life in the Arabian Peninsula, my mind wandered to recollections of Bishara drumming on his tablah and teaching our DC friends my nouveau form of belly dancing on weekends; “map-less” prolonged drives into the scenic countryside of West Virginia, pups cradled in my arms, heads popping out the car window; and tender Thanksgiving visits to family, aroma trails of baking turkey and stuffing floating through the house.  Reaching further back, my thoughts rested on childhood trips on California coastal highways and cross-country drives inaugurated with the stark deserts and canyon lands of the southwest.

Adolescent memories of the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, and Four Corners, while daubed with a sense of novelty, were somewhat muted due to the austerity and stillness of the landscape.  Years later, as a young adult, the harshness and desolation of America’s desert buttes and mesas acquired an ethereal quality; an appreciation for these exceptional formations, spawned over millions, and billions, of years, by nature’s slow yet relentless forces of rivers, wind, rain, sedimentation, and ice.  When visiting Bryce Canyon, Zion Park, and the Grand Canyon, joined together by the effects of weather, tectonic activity, and water to form the “Grand Staircase,” I connected to the earliest times of earth’s creation through the Vishnu Basement rocks of the Grand Canyon and the Claron Formation rock layer that shapes the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon.

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Grand Canyon

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Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon

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Zion Park

Halfway around the globe, the Arab Peninsula is girdled by its own geological design, the Arabian Desert, dominated largely by Rub’al-Khali (“Empty Quarter” located in southeast Saudi Arabia), the largest uninterrupted sand field in the world.  Although fortified by tectonic plates and sedimentation in its evolution, the desert and dunes of the Arab states are often aligned with a cultural sentiment, roaming sheepherders and tents, and, unfortunately, recently a more sinister perspective, rather than as a topographical curiosity.  Before arriving in the Arab Gulf in late 2000, I, along with many of my western family and friends, envisioned an abundance of camels, goats, sand, and Bedouins, not the glittering high-rise towers that litter downtown Riyadh and Doha, and other urban centers of the region.

Following intense workweeks fixated on financial reports at King Faisal Hospital, Wednesday afternoons were filled with anticipatory gratification at the prospect of piling into our green jeep the next morning, the weekend, our boom box loaded with popular Arabic music (Nancy Ajram and Said Murad), mixed mezzah contribution in the backseat, and pups positioned on my lap.  Heeding the instructions of a fellow expatriate, excursion director for the day, we and a convoy of several other cars met at the appointed location, conveyed our cursory greetings, and drove, single file, to an awaiting exploit in the quiescent desert.

One of our first destinations, “Edge of the World,” required a roughly two hour drive outside Riyadh, and was so named due to the precipitous drop following a continuous stony plateau etched with tread markings, Salt Bush,  and Bedouins tending to goats and sheep. Hiking on the escarpments of the crimson cliffs was followed by a picnic; quilted blankets, barbecue grills filled with sizzling shish kabob and complemented with tabouli, hommous, and brownies atop portable tables forming a convivial patchwork under the shade of a sweeping acacia tree.  An exquisite sunset rounded out the evening.  Skewed expectations and the singularity of the experience shared with other nascent residents buttressed the enchantment of the event.

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Road to “Edge of the World”

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Bedouin

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“Edge of the World” (Outside of Riyadh)

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Expatriate “Picnic-time”

Expeditions to nearby “Red Sands,” a broad expanse of rose desert rippled with dunes, provided an ample sand-surfing playground for children, pups, and adults alike, and “Hidden Valley,” bearing an uncanny resemblance to Monument Valley, site of several U.S. western movies, allowed for cave exploration, fossil finds, and belly dancing led by Bishara’s tablah playing under wide-fanned trees.  Bedouin hospitality, fortuitously, crept into one of our more auspicious trips to Hidden Valley.  After traversing craggy rock contours, and indulging in Kentucky Fried chicken and an amiable exchange between chummy expatriates, a haggard figure in a worn tunic and ghuttra approached – arms waving and incoherent words spilling.  Bishara, a Lebanese native, recognized the Bedouin dialect.  The man needed help with moving his pickup truck, which had stalled out some distance away in the desert.  Bishara and one of our friends followed the man to the disabled truck, aided in moving the truck to the man’s Bedouin tent village where the two interlopers incited a certain level of interest, and as a gesture of his gratitude, the man invited us all to a camel feast, which would require sacrificing prized and valuable livestock.  Although we had to forgo this magnanimous offering due to an early workday the following morning, the essence of Bedouin generosity had left its trace.

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“Red Sands”

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“Hidden Valley”

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Belly dancing in “Hidden Valley”

Sometimes daytime jaunts transformed into overnight camping trips.  A bagpipe sunset serenade by a fellow expat accompanied by simmering kafta, steak, and baked potatoes; late night debates around a fire pit; sleeping under the stars – pups at our feet; and early morning conversation over tea, coffee, and scrambled eggs à la Bishara.  A powerful fusion of amity, creature comforts, and tranquility.

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Breakfast in the desert.

Our most memorable Qatar desert escapade was through invitation by a Qatari family who graciously arranged for a day in the desert at their family farm.  A caravan of four cars, ours and three family cars with two drivers and four housemaids, ferried us the nearly two hours outside of Doha in a southerly direction.  An hour on the highway, and the balance of the journey on a makeshift sandy, stony roadway, and we arrived at a remote span of desert suffused with penned goats and sheep, an open tent designated for the men with a grill prominently displayed out front and a closed four-flapped tent for the women.  Additional family members arrived during a farm tour by my young friend, Sherifa; several brothers of the patriarch, as well as two sisters, and their families.  Following introductions, the matriarch guided me by the arm to the women’s tent where the housemaids had placed swaths of plastic sheets along the floor overlaid with colorful carpets and platters and trays of rice and lamb, hommous, babaganoush, stuffed grape leaves, macaroni, salad with tomato and onion.  As a guest, I was encouraged to eat first and well; I opted to dip into the communal dish of rice and lamb with my right hand, the traditional way.  Our meal was chased by a wild ride through the desert to the outdoor toilet, tunes streaming on a cell phone while women dangled out car windows singing and balanced precariously on running boards.  Khaleeji music coupled with reassuring dance lessons, and proffers of roasted chestnuts and corn concluded the nighttime revelry.

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Men’s Tent (Qatar Farm)

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Women’s Tent

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Feast in women’s tent.

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Roasted chestnuts and corn.

Desert visits have become spiritual undertakings for me: the canyons and mesas of the southwest U.S. filling me with wonder at the immense prospect of time, regeneration, and Earth’s beginnings; and the vast sand masses of the Gulf region providing replenishment through moments of fellowship, community, and self-discovery.

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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.

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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

Snapshots of Qatar ~ 2013

A year filled with happiness, tragedy, and inspiration.

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Souk Al-Waqif

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Lunch-time at the souk!

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Horse races at the Equestrian Center.

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Fly Board World Championships at The Pearl-Qatar.

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Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra

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Graduation at American School of Doha

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Common sight in Qatar!

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Bounty from the Vegetable Souk!

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American Women’s Association Bazaar

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Ready for some belly dancing!

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We launched Desert Horizons Tutoring Services, a community-based outreach tutoring program.

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Doha’s nighttime skyline.

Me & Sherifa in Desert of Qatar

Me and Sherifa.  Sherifa passed away in a tragic car accident. Sherifa taught me more than most about the culture and lifestyle of Qatar. Rest in peace, dear friend.  I will miss you greatly.

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We also lost sweet “Callie girl,” our precious furry daughter.  You are forever in our hearts.

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A Heart Divided

The Middle East is a tinderbox – Syrians being massacred by chemical weapons, Egypt in continuous turmoil, Lebanon being torn open by old and new wounds, not to mention Iraq, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya enduring a chronic state of flux.  This is the Arab world my husband, Bishara, and I were returning to after an extended peaceful and restful summer vacation in the U.S.  Just five weeks earlier I had felt wistful about leaving Qatar for America; I would miss meandering along the alleyways of Souk Al-Waqif, walks along the Arabian Gulf, gatherings with Qatari and expatriate friends, and our two miniature poodle pups who would be staying behind with friends.  I was a happy and content expatriate living a full and comfortable life in the tiny nation-state of Qatar.

Doha's Skyline

Doha’s Skyline

The Pearl-Qatar (Man-Made Island)

The Pearl-Qatar (man-made island)

The Corniche (Doha, Qatar)

The Corniche (Doha, Qatar)

Fast forward five weeks to the end of August, and we are about to board a plane in Washington, DC for our flight back to Qatar.  CNN is reporting on defiance of the curfew in Cairo and Syria’s warning against outside involvement in its conflict on a big screen TV as we sit in an airport restaurant sipping iced tea.  We reminisce about family and friends in America who had inquired about our future safety in Qatar.  “Are you guys going to be okay over there?”, “Isn’t it time you came back to the States?”, “You’ve been in the Middle East how long?”

The Middle East has experienced years, decades, centuries of conflict, but the new rounds of strife across the region were hitting close to home.  As we waited in the Washington Dulles airport gate area, I thought back to bike riding through the streets of the small island town off the Virginia coast, our home of eight years, the sea breezes and salt air fresh in our faces and playing havoc with my curly hair.  The many walks on the protected beaches, Bishara bodysurfing and frolicking in the ocean swells.  And the heartwarming time spent with family and friends was irreplaceable.  In Qatar, and the larger Gulf region, the incautious driving precludes relaxed weekend bike rides, and while “beaching it” or sitting poolside in the winter months is superb, sunbathing in the summer months is synonymous with being trapped in a sauna.  Our ties to the East, though, had Bishara bringing his tablah (Arabic drum) to the Blue Dog restaurant in Snow Hill, MD over the summer where he was hopeful that his drum beats just might synchronize with the World War II music and singing pulsating throughout the intimate surroundings.  To Bishara’s dismay, the opportunity never materialized.

From biking and bodysurfing along the eastern coast, our summer travels brought us to crisp, refreshing mountain air and a most special family reunion in Glacier National Park in Montana.  Bishara and I made it a point to go horseback riding with a bronco-riding cousin, our trek taking us alongside babbling streams and through mountain pastures filled with wildflowers.  As my cousin hopped off his horse to show us a wild anise-type root and explain its medicinal purpose, Bishara, again, brought us thousands of miles eastward, remarking that our horse ride reminded him of riding camels in southern Lebanon as a child with his grandfather in summers past.

As many good memories that we have of the Arab world, from Bishara’s sentimentality surrounding his childhood in Lebanon and Jordan to my blossoming from an introvert to a committed belly dancer and chatter at “women only” fetes in Arab friends’ homes, we have had our share of scares while in the Middle East region.  In 2004, we had to make a quick exit from Saudi Arabia due to bombings of western expatriate compounds in Riyadh, which ultimately prompted our move to Qatar.  And then there are the horrific stories of abuse, and other atrocities, that appear in newspapers and other media, like the recent 8 year-old Yemeni child-bride who tragically died on her wedding night.

When friends and family ask how we can live in an area where this sort of thing happens, I am often left feeling some level of unease, even embarrassment, and at a loss for words.  At these times, I find myself going back to conversations I have had with Bishara and my own conscience.  While my initial interest in living in the Middle East was centered on a singular cultural experience, my years in the Arab world have given way to an enriched life with a healthy balance between work and private time, as well as the opportunity to experience time, and time again, the hospitality and generosity of the average Arab – my friends, my workmates, my community.

I remember quite clearly my consternation over Bishara admonishing me for admiring a Saudi friend’s handbag when we lived in Riyadh, and the friend insisting that I accept the several hundred dollar handbag as a gift.  (It would have been an insult had I not accepted the handbag.)  Or the bedraggled desert Bedouin who needed our help to start his truck, later pressing us to join his family for a camel feast.  And visits to Arab friends’ homes that begin with “Come in, my brother and sister” tend to continue with extended conversation over cardamom coffee and sumptuous meals of lamb and rice.  This magnanimity, based in tradition and religion, first became apparent to me in 1996 when we had a stopover in Lebanon, Bishara’s homeland, during which Bishara’s mother and sister could not feed us enough molkiha, stuffed grape leaves, and kibbe; it was a point of honor and privilege that we be well fed and properly tended to.

It is this focus on the “human factor” and family, known as tribalism in the broader sense, which drew me to the Arab culture and renewed my spirit.  But it is this very concept of strong familial ties, which makes the region rife for disputes and conflict between tribes, sects, and factions when the steadfast sense of loyalty, love and passion that exists within a household leads to a fierce need to protect the reputation and dignity of the family or tribe.

Regardless of the multitude of events occurring in this region, our hearts remain divided between the west and the Arab world.

Related article:

Why I Love Traveling in the Middle East (Planet Bell: A Travel and Photo Blog by Jeff Bell)

 

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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Rules of Gender Socializing

I originally published this article in Woman Today (Qatari Magazine), October 2008.

My first foray into the Arabian Peninsula began with my arrival at Riyadh airport in Saudi Arabia in early 2000.  I had accompanied my husband, a Lebanese native, along with a contingency of U.S.-Saudi Business Council members, on an 18 hour flight from Washington, D.C. to explore potential joint venture opportunities between U.S.and Saudi companies.  While our delegationsipped mint tea andwaited for our luggage in a room overflowing with colorful, sumptuous furniture, a swellof activity rose around us; I was startled bya seaof black abayes and white thobes ebbing and flowing throughoutthe hall.  Even morepeculiar and unfamiliar, was the sight of Saudi men enthusiasticallygreeting each other with a kiss to each cheek. Some even lightly touched the tips of their noses together.  Trying not to stare rudely, I watched two other gentlemen welcome one another; locked in a convivial embrace, they strolled side by side through the terminal.  Many pairs walked away, hand in hand, gleefully swinging their arms in the air like schoolyard chums.  I found myself stifling my astonishment at such outward and physical signs of affection between men.  Ironically, the Saudi women seemed less emotional in their interactions with each other; their greetings were barely audible or visible and more somber.  The corner of the hall, however, hummed with vigorous, yet controlled, chatter from clusters of women, surrounded by the incessant motion of children.  Backdrops such as these would unfurl throughout my incomparable and intriguing time in the Middle East.

In November 2000, my husband, our two pooches and I relocated to Riyadh from Washington, D.C., our home of 17 years, and settled into the unique rhythmic pace of the Kingdom.  Whether at work or socializing, I found the same closeness between both my male colleagues and our Arab male friends.  Even casual greetings among men would begin with busses to the cheeks and lead to protracted conversations that oftenincluded cardamom or Turkish coffee, or sweet mint tea.  Four years later, we moved to Qatar where despite the booming pace of the economy the socializing patterns moved at a distinctly slower and more deliberate stride as had been the case in Saudi Arabia.  As I sauntered through Doha’s City Center Mall or Souk Al-Waqif, I was continually surprised by, and in awe of, the close and intense relationships between Arab males: groups of men sharing sheesha and Turkish coffee while speaking in hushed tones or throwing their heads back in laughter.

Smoking Sheesha in Doha

Relationships between males in the U.S. are generally not as public in expression or exhibition. In Western culture, men are typically characterized as less openly emotional, preferring to bond over topics and interests such as sports, work, popular news, or finances.  Our American male friends were usually caught off guard when my husband, born and raised in Jordan, reverted to his natural customs, greeting his friends with a hearty hug and familial kiss on the cheek. Invariably, our friends might laugh anxiously, slightly confused, politely saying, “Please don’t do that, it’s not really the way we do things.”  In time, however, many of our male friends became comfortable with my husband’s overtures of amity, even reciprocating his warm salutations.

Marie-Josee Bedard

Marie-Josee Bedard

 

Marie-Josée, a Canadian expat friend, who has traveled all over the world, discussed her own perception of the cultural differences between how Arab mensocialize:Although two men kissing on the cheeks, rubbing noses, and holding hands may be seen as bizarre in culturally conservative countries (like Japan, UK, USA and Canada), in European countries (like France, Italy, and numerous African and central American cultures), men greet each other with kisses on the cheeks and view the ‘non-compliant’ cultures as ‘cold’. We are all different and should not judge and assume our way is the best and only way.”

Social segregation is a very natural part of Arab culture, and forms the tapestry of much of the larger community.  My husband has had the singular opportunity to experience this distinctive form of socializing when he attended several formal male only events, including a wedding ceremony in Riyadh and an engagement celebration in Doha.  Although he was politely greeted as a “brother” and encouraged to feel comfortable,he found the sober nature of each event rather bewildering. Unlike informal gatherings of Arab males at cafes and restaurants where collectives of men seem intimate and jovial, traditional functions for men are typically marked by more subdued pursuits.  Music and flowers were absent from the wedding ceremony in Riyadh; controlled whispering permeated the air.  After an hour and a half a feast was served, and shortly thereafter the men departed the wedding hall.  The engagement ritual was similarly understated, marked by muted conversation during which servers offered cardamom coffee, mint tea, and soda, followed by kanafeh after which the men dispersed.  These occasions and men’s conduct when attending them differ greatly from what happens at the famed sporting event.  As football or baseball does for the American male, soccer matches in large stadiums in the Middle East bring out the vibrant and competitive spirit in the Arab man.

Men congregating in Souk Al-Waqif. (Doha, Qatar)

In contrast to formal gatherings of men, “women only” events give Arab women the opportunity to cultivate a certain freedom to simply be themselves and appreciate their femininity.  My first introduction to such functions found me awkward and self conscious not knowing exactly how to act or what was expected of me.  Adding to my discomfort was my anxiety at being viewed as an oddity, someone out of place.  I wondered if these women regarded me with suspicion: the American girl seeing this type of celebration as simply a novel or quaint experience.   I was initially surprised to find these women who in public were often silent, enveloped in black, here surprisingly open and joyous, transformed by their colorful clothing, ornate jewelry, and immaculately coiffed hair.

Loraine Barron

Loraine Barron

A friend of mine, Loraine, from the UK, shared her feelings regarding her own experiences with this type of social setting.  “It is easy to assume that the women from this part of the world who wear the abaye have no idea of, or interest in, fashionable clothes, but I have been a guest at a local wedding where the women celebrated separately from the men, and was surprised to see them beautifully attired in the latest up-to-the moment designer clothes.”  Loraine paused for a moment and then continued:  “The Qatari ladies I have met socially are also very knowledgeable and ‘switched on’ as to what is going on around the rest of the world and can easily discuss trends and social issues.  It is all too easy for us from the West to assume that because women wear the abaye, in which they look serene and demure, that they are shy and retiring ladies.  The exact opposite is the case.”

Western and Saudi Arabian women.

Arab and western women. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A cautious observer in the beginning, in time I began to thoroughly enjoy the warmth, grace, and sociability that accompanied bonding with other women.  My Arab sisters taught me to completely let go and be comfortable in my own skin, enjoy the moment, and succumb to unbridled delight.  At such events lively discussions thrummed as the soaring strains of Nancy Ajram provided the backdrop for vibrant singing and enthusiastic, intimatedancing.   While in Doha I have had some remarkable evenings with Qatari families during which I might be one of a cluster of women settled on colorful red cushions on the floor enjoying palpable Arab hospitality and probing conversation while sipping cardamom coffee, eating dates and Lebanese mezzah, while my husband is huddled with the male members of the family in an adjacent tent in the front courtyard.

English: Nancy Ajram performing at a wedding i...

Nancy Ajram in Cairo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While single sex socializing is prevalent in the Arab world, in the U.S. it is a less explicit part of life.  These moments that allow for men and women to fraternize in their own groups are often relegated to special occurrences such as a bachelorette party, baby shower, or shopping excursion. Young women in the U.S. also assemble to partake in “girls’ night out” evenings where they might go to an assortment of dance clubs or restaurants over the course of the night.  Women in both the Arab world and the U.S. value these special moments spent together in sisterhood. For men in the U.S., bachelor parties, sporting events, or even weekends spent fishing, hunting, or camping allow for times where they might strengthen their unique relationships.

These instances might also arise within the context of Americans’ daily routines, cropping up rather organically amidst the business of everyday life. For example, western moms may meet each other at cafes, with their children, as a scheduled part of their busy day to chat with one another while their children are occupied, and both parents may use sporting and extramural interests to talk with and visit other families.  In this case, many times men will coalesce with one another to socialize around the given sport or activity.

Woman from Damascus, Muslim woman from Mecca, ...

Arab Women – Late 19th Century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Living in the Middle East for the last eight years has afforded me not only the opportunity to become more aware of the rich Arab social culture, but has also opened my eyes to the wonderful and novel bonds men and women form with each other when the opportunity permits. Most importantly, my distinct socializing experiences in the Arab world have impacted the way I approach my own socializing habits.  I find myself much more at ease among my Arab and American sisters, united by the commonality of our gender.  Socializing is an integral part of both cultures and facilitates the celebration of commonalities amongst difference.

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Where is Qatar, again?

Our friends and others have been asking us this question repeatedly over the last seven and a half years.  This 60 Minutes news piece provides a glimpse into the triumphs and challenges faced by this small, unconventional Arabian Gulf nation.

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Turkish Evening in Qatar

Abdülmecid I was the Sultan of the Ottoman Emp...

Abdulmecid I (Sultan of Ottoman Empire, 1839-1861)

Our western expatriate friends in the Arabian Peninsula seem to love all things Turkish – the food, the country, the culture!  Due to the proximity of the country – Istanbul, Turkey is only 1,690 miles (2,720 kilometers), or three and a half flying hours, away from Doha, Qatar, many expatriates in the Gulf region arrange for holidays to this alluring nation.  The comments you frequently hear are, “Oh, the Blue Mosque is stunning,” or “The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is the best, and most extensive market, I’ve ever seen!”  We’ve even had expatriate friends who have been interested in acquiring properties in Turkey after holiday visits.  Often called the gateway between East and West, Turkey is bordered by Greece and Bulgaria on the European side, and by Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria on the Middle Eastern/Asian side.  The history of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire is rich and far-reaching.  The Ottoman Empire was massive, encompassing portions of Asia, North Africa, and Eastern Europe at its height, and stretched from 1299 to 1923, making it one of the longest running empires in history.

Although Ottoman influence in the Arab Gulf endured (in varying degrees) from the 16th century through the early 20th century, one of the more notable connections between the Arabian Peninsula and the Ottoman Empire surrounds the construction of the Hejaz rail line.  In the early 1900’s the Ottomans built the Hejaz railway line, which connected Damascus and Medina, a holy site, in the Arabian Peninsula.  This addition provided an extension to the existing railway line running from Istanbul to Damascus, thereby allowing greater movement of Turkish military troops, food and supplies into the Arabian Gulf region.  The Hejaz rail line, which began its service in 1913 was meant not only to consolidate political and commercial control of the Arab Gulf by the Ottoman nation, but it also helped transport Muslims to the holy cities of Medina and Mecca (in present day Saudi Arabia).  By 1914, however, World War I was underway, and Ottoman rule began to deteriorate.  By 1917 to 1918, Lawrence of Arabia (T.E. Lawrence) was directing attacks of Arab forces against the Turks, with a central focus on blowing up sections of the Hejaz railway line in an effort to halt the flow of food, supply and Turkish troops into the Peninsula.  Lawrence’s undertaking led to the destruction of the railway line, which thwarted the advancement of supplies and Turkish troops, thereby allowing the British navy to enter Red Sea ports along the west coast of Arabia helping to hasten the end of Ottoman rule and World War I.

Nowadays, Turkish influence in the Arab Gulf is confined to cuisine and cultural exchanges.  Turkish soap operas are a major craze in the general region, and are particularly popular among Gulf nationals.  Our Arab friends were especially enamored with the Turkish soap, “Noor,” an intriguing series about the arranged marriage, and love story, of the main characters, Noor and Muhannad, (an attractive blonde-haired, blue-eyed heir to a successful business conglomerate).  The serial was translated from Turkish into Arabic and kept its audience (entire families normally) glued to their television screens in the evening hours that it aired.  Besides television fare, it’s always a cultural treat to see whirling dervishes in their brightly colored and billowing garb during Ramadan Iftar events at the big hotels in Doha, and sipping fragrant Turkish coffee in delicate demitasse cups is a favorite pastime in the Arab world, primarily outside the Arab Gulf.  Although not a big coffee fan, I love Turkish coffee, and we always have some of this exquisite blend in stock in our home.  We could run out of food or other important staples, but my husband would never let us run out of Turkish coffee!   

But the real rage across the Arab Peninsula for expatriates, and nationals alike, is Turkish food.  When we moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in November 2000, we had barely unpacked our suitcases before we were introduced to Assaraya Turkish restaurant, located within the heart of the city in the Olaya district.  The smoky-flavored babaganoush; parsley-rich tabouli; chicken shwarmas with fries, pickles and garlic mayo; topped off with freshly baked bread with sesame seeds were to die for.  We frequented this restaurant either in person, or to retrieve “take out” meals, more than any other when we lived in the Kingdom.  Assaraya restaurant was always the “go to” restaurant when we gathered with our western expatriate friends; I think many of us had the phone number on speed dial.

While Assaraya restaurant had a simple and rather “homey” ambience, along with terrific food, and inexpensive prices, Turkey Central restaurant in Doha, Qatar where we now reside has excellent cuisine, modest prices, and very little atmosphere.  Turkey Central on Al Nasr Street, however, is one of the most popular restaurants, among expatriates and nationals in Qatar for a casual, yet substantial, meal.  While the expatriates tend to dine in the spartan family section upstairs and share feasts of chicken and cheese fatayer, meat kabobs and kofta, along with mixed maza and filtered yogurt, the nationals have been known to streamline the process by parking outside the front door and honking for curbside service.

If you live in Qatar, or are visiting, and are interested in a more refined Turkish dining experience, and you don’t mind somewhat higher prices, Sukar Pasha (Ottoman Lounge), in Katara Cultural Village, is a superb choice, particularly from an ambience point of view.  The restaurant is very quiet during the noon-time and afternoon hours, although I do understand that they recently began serving lunch from 12:00 noon to 3:00 PM.  This is an especially nice time to relax, have a mixed fresh fruit cocktail, and be treated to stunning views of the Arabian Sea.

Sukar Pasha (Ottoman Lounge)

Sukar Pasha has distinctive glassed-in rooms with plush and ample cushions and a separate door that opens to the sea view, which is particularly conducive to smoking fruit flavored sheesha and having private, intimate chit-chat.  The sheesha, though, is quite pricey at QAR 100 (equivalent to USD 27).  Dinner hours are from 6:30 PM to 12:00 midnight, and one can dine inside in elegant surroundings or outside in a more casual yet festive setting.

Sukar Pasha sports exotic Ottoman-style chandeliers, opulent hand-painted ceilings (including one ceiling section with a stunning inverted dome), tiled floors highlighted with extravagant golden swirls, and miniature and massive paintings displaying the various sultans as well as tales of the Ottoman empire.  Even the restrooms have the feel of the famous Turkish baths (or hammams) with blue tiled mosaics and large paintings depicting the luxuriant Ottoman lifestyle.

Meals begin with homemade Pickled Beet Root (Pancar Tursusu) or Mastabe (yogurt, chard leaves, mint, and garlic), both selections from the “Cold Mezze” portion of the menu.  Or if you prefer the “Warm Mezze,” you might select Beef Tongue (Dana Dili Haslama) or my favorite Mixed Turkish Pide (pide being similar to pita bread, but without the pouch), which is rather like a Turkish pizza with spinach, pastirma (cured beef, similar to pastrami), and cheese.  Main courses range from Kuru Fasulye – Pilav Cacik, which is broiled white beans with pastirma, Turkish rice, and cacik (diluted yogurt); to Chicken Yidegor – Tavuk Yidegor, or charcoal Chicken Kofta, with bulgur balls, yogurt and tomato, and Skewered Lamb (Kuzu Sis).  The evening is topped off with Roasted Sweet Pumpkin, or Semolina Hulviyyat (roasted pine nuts and semolina with cinnamon sherbet and mastic ice cream).

Turkish Delight, French Nougat, Coconut Ice - ...

Turkish Delights - (Love when our friends bring these sweets back from Turkey!)

Pomegranate Bulgur Pilaf Recipe (Nar Bulgur Pilavı) [from: http://www.turkishcookbook.com/]

1/2 cup bulgur, large grain, washed and drained (Turkish bulgar, if possible)

1 cup hot water

1 medium onion, sliced

5-6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 tbsp tomato paste

1 tsp red pepper taste

1 tsp red pepper taste, hot

Salt

Pepper

Garnish:

1/3 cup Pomegranate

Creamy yogurt

Saute the onion with olive oil for about 2-3 minutes.  Add the tomato and red pepper pastes, salt and pepper.  Continue to sauté for about 3-4 more minutes.  Then add the bulgur and warm water, put the lid on.  Close the lid and continue to cook until the bulgur is done, i.e, when all the liquid has evaporated at low heat.

Garnish with pomegranate.  Serve the Pomegranate Bulgur Pilav

Creamy Yogurt by the side.

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