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

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

 

Related articles:

 

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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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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A “Women Only” Arabian Wedding

Costumes of Arab women, fourth to sixth century.

Arab Women (Fourth to Sixth Century)

I originally published this article in The Liberator, September 2009.

I turned the wedding invitation over in my hands, caressing its lavender velvet. In the filtered sunlight of the villa courtyard, the gold Arabic script laced over in elegant calligraphy seemed to shimmy, and the tiny mirrored gems sprinkled along the folds winked seductively up at me. I felt a flush of pleasure as I visualized myself, an expatriate Cinderella, finally asked to the ball: a “women only” wedding.

This distinctly Arab ritual united women in unadulterated euphoria, celebrating and honoring the marriage ceremony, a particularly sacred experience in Arab culture. Despite being exposed to many novel cultural experiences during my four years living in Saudi Arabia and over three years in Qatar, attending a “women only” wedding remained a particularly poignant desire of mine. Almost compulsively drawn to places, people, and experiences that swept me away from the conventions and comforts of my western culture, I found this innate kinship with foreign locations and customs responsible for shaping much of my adult life, including my eventual decision to leave Washington, DC, my home of 17 years, and to relocate to Saudi Arabia with my husband.

Only the most traditional of Arab families continue with the practice of “women only” weddings.  As the name suggests, “women only” weddings are reserved for females, allowing the bride and her family and friends to celebrate the cherished nuptials free of the restrictions that are faced in everyday life such as wearing the obligatory abaye and headscarf in public. In conservative Arab families it is forbidden for women to be seen “uncovered” by a male other than an immediate family member.  Until now, l had lived vicariously through the experiences of my Arab and expatriate women friends who filled my visions of these celebrations with Arab women adorned in lavish gowns, dancing with frenzied abandon until dawn, and feasting upon the seemingly limitless banquet of fine cuisines served late in the night. Feeling like a 16 year-old who had just been asked to the prom, I gently clutched the invitation close to me and hurried inside. The laundry list of my daily errands and chores evaporated in the scorching noon sun as I mentally scanned my closet, what to wear?!

Unlike many American wedding ceremonies where couples find themselves hurtling through meetings with wedding planners, DJ’s, and pastors, Arabs make their way to the alter through a series of very structured, traditional steps. First the prospective bride and groom’s parents must agree to the marriage. Following this, the groom and his parents prearrange a visit to the home of the bride’s family where, in the presence of a religious sheikh, a marriage agreement called the “Aqed Zawaaj” is signed by the bride and groom, the bride’s father, the groom’s father, and two male Muslim witnesses. The marriage agreement stipulates that a fee, agreed upon by both parties, be paid by the groom to the bride as a gift.  A portion of this is used to procure the essentials in any wedding: purchasing the bride’s extravagant gown, reserving the wedding hall, and outfitting the hall with flowers, and anything else deemed necessary for the auspicious occasion. This money also goes toward elaborate makeup and jewelry, which are both viewed as indispensable elements in any Arab wedding. Perhaps this speaks as much to the Arabic penchant to indulge in the pure exaltation of the marital bond as it does to the simple fact that women only weddings share an affinity with so many events born out of American celebrity culture: it is a place to see and be seen.

The time between the signing of the “Aqed Zawaaj” and the wedding reception is typically several months, giving the couple time to get to know one another or court. Though, unlike Western dating, a chaperone, typically from the women’s family, remains present on any outing. In addition, the couple may not live together nor be seen alone together in public before the ceremonial wedding reception where the participants serve as witnesses to the marriage. Separate celebrations for men and women are normally held simultaneously on the wedding day.

Free of the worldwide web, “speed dating,” and dating services that westerners employ in search of love or partnership, matchmaking in the Arab world retains the same venerable and effectual art form that has endured through the ages. Female family members, mothers, sisters, aunts are all responsible for selecting an appropriate mate for unmarried males with the pool of possibilities including cousins, friends, neighbors, or a complete stranger; marriage to a cousin brings the greatest security and creates stronger ties within the family. As such, at “women only” wedding ceremonies, unmarried women are given the chance to catch the attention of female relatives of eligible bachelors by flaunting their figures in revealing gowns and proving their “moves on the dance floor.”

Arab Bride

The wedding reception was held at the Ritz Carlton on the outskirts of Doha.  I was awestruck by both the opulence of the room with its sparkling chandeliers and lush furnishings and the assemblage of women. Women spilled out everywhere, some whispering discreetly in each others’ ears or meandering through the room, reservedly and chastely kissing relatives or friends the requisite three times on the cheeks; others surveyed the room like fashion critics ogling guests on the red carpet. Amidst these assorted guests a core group presided over all of the guests, directing the sequence of events. I was enthralled, spellbound, and a bit unsteadied by the sheer spectacle.

After wading further into the room, I noticed a three foot elevated platform with runway that traversed virtually the entire length of the room.  Alongside the runway, a female singer keened to the accompaniment of musicians playing the tablah, or Arabic drum. Dotting each side of the extravagant catwalk were numerous round tables laid out with elaborate gold and burgundy place settings for dinner. A large golden rectangular pot with circular designs spreading from the base to the rim containing an abundance of colorful artificial flowers resided on each table. Ivory pillars rose from the elevated platform, sporting gold inlaid designs with a sequence of curves that melted into each other; burgundy curtains dripped between the columns. Gold and ivory colored stands with exquisitely crafted flowers bordered the stage. In the center, a red velvet loveseat awaited the bride and groom who would make separate entrances later in the evening.

Laila, the mother of the bride, greeted me and my good friend, Sameerah, when we entered the room. Though I had met her several months earlier at a sheesha café in a newly renovated souk in Doha, I abruptly passed right by her in the ballroom, mistaking her for just one of the many bejeweled and gowned guests. Gone were her long black abaye and head covering. What stood before me now was a vision that could easily pass forHollywoodroyalty.

Laila gazed at me with impeccably made-up eyes – hues of blue covered her lids and shimmering black outlined her exquisite ovals. A lavender dress clung to her curvaceous form that ended with a magnificent train; silver adornments glimmered in the artificial light of the luxurious chandeliers. Laila’s hair was piled high atop her head; delicate ringlets framed her face and cascaded along the side and back of her head. Struck by Laila’s splendor and extraordinary luminescence I felt at once wistful that these Arab women were not permitted to let their natural beauty radiate in this way more often, and yet I understood and respected the desire to maintain and honor the deeply ingrained traditions and customs that dictated their reality. In a constant state of frenetic, yet gracious motion, Laila played the roles of skilled director, choreographer, and consummate hostess; she indefatigably welcomed her guests and ensured that not only was everyone comfortable, but supremely happy—a staple of Arabic hospitality.

After many years in the Middle East, I had undoubtedly become acclimated to seeing traditional Arab women enveloped in black, seemingly bereft of identity and barely present – one ebony form identical to the next. I had to squelch any outward signs of sheer disbelief at the exceptional beauty of the women collected in the room as Sameerah, the veteran of such gala events, coolly guided us to a table adjacent to the stage. We settled in amongst a throng of haute couture gowns with glittery and colorful embellishments (many with trains), plunging necklines, unconventionally stylish miniature top hats garnished with striking colors and glistening silver sequins rakishly tilted to one side, atop flawlessly coiffured hair.  I met the eyes of many women, ringed with deep and rich shades of green and blue, their lids traced in thick sultry black liner. Henna scrollwork artistically ran up and down hands, arms, feet, and legs. I conspicuously surveyed my own couture gown, ornate multi-tiered silver necklace with matching earrings, and painstakingly applied makeup, and lost all hope of blending into this opulent jewel box.

Not long after we entered the hall, the room began to pulsate with music blaring from mammoth speakers mounted to the walls. Along the stage, frantic, rhythmic drumming resonated in the room while a singer belted out traditional Gulf melodies at a pitch that strained every nerve ending.  Several young women in the audience sprang onto the stage, leaping and gyrating along the platform simulating the traditional Gulf dance, a dance performed in countries along the Arabian Peninsula, in a zealous and ritualistic fever. I watched with a tinge of envy at the dancers’ sheer lack of inhibition and was brought back to an image of myself at that age, painfully shy, filled with a consuming dread when first asked to dance to the comparably tame strains of Chicago by my future husband in the bar of the Hilton Hotel outside the University of Florida campus.

Sameerah caught my intent gaze, her eyes playfully prodding me to take the dance floor. We both adore dancing, but neither of us knew how to dance the traditional Gulf dance. I bit my lip and shook my head, not wanting to risk exposing my two left feet. My love of dance, however, won over my full fledged trepidation of not measuring up to these graceful and bewitching creatures. I could sense legions of eyes, laser rays boring holes through me as Sameerah and I made our way up the stairs to the stage. My gaze anxiously swept the platform taking in the hapless yet harmonious arm movements, inexhaustible and whirling hip action, pivoting shoulders and necks, and swirling fans of long, silky, coal black hair slicing through the air.  Seizing the fleeting sympathetic smiles from compassionate observers, I desperately tried to imitate the mystical moves, willing my body to sway and whip in the same mesmerizing fashion to no avail.  I finally succumbed to the more familiar belly dance that I had learned from my husband, his family, and other Arab friends, slipping comfortably into the oscillating circular movement of the hips and letting my arms billow out to the side, joyfully losing myself in the dance. Sameerah persisted heroically with a blended version of Gulf motions and belly dance. Our inspired, yet futile, efforts were met with charitable applause from the audience. Emboldened and giddy over the audience response, Sameerah and I made a second vain attempt at the nuanced movements of the Gulf dance. The most I could muster were inept leaps and helpless flailing arms. I felt challenging stares as my spirit deflated. Once at the security of our table, I caught a twinkle in Sameerah’s eye as she leaned over and whispered that she had overheard several of Laila’s inner circle comment that the westerner and her friend might prefer belly dancing over the more traditional Gulf moves. To our delight the next song was a Lebanese melody, perfect for belly dancing. Sameerah and I were back on the stage to the obvious appreciation of the audience.

Arab Child at Wedding

Several enchanting young children, fixated on their older sisters and cousins’ expert movements, gingerly climbed the stairs to the stage to imitate their revered kinsmen. From time to time, older women completely covered in black from head to toe, save for their worn eyes, made their way onto the stage to throw paper bills over the dancers. The scattered money would be collected at the end of the festivities to tip the singer and musicians. The bills twirled and fluttered across the stage in the same way the dancers cast their bodies about the platform.  The women tossed out their money, cupping one hand over their mouths and crying out in shrill undulating tones. I was intrigued and baffled by the incongruity of the scene. Only moments before, these nondescript women shrouded in black had appeared devoid of personality. Now, they shared the stage with such dazzling, spellbinding figures.  Both sets of women, generations colliding, drew the eyes of enraptured onlookers. Perhaps these women cried out in sheer joy for their younger sister, given over in marriage; perhaps theirs was also a wail daubed with mourning, recalling a time and place that was only a distant memory for them.

Finally the time arrived for the bride, Fatima, to make her anticipated entrance. Muted sighs rippled through the room.  A viselike grip throttled my senses as I caught sight of a vision in white satin floating past me on the carpet. Fatima sparkled in a resplendent white modern wedding gown and veil, her figure in full display. Her serene eyes gazed regally, deep pools of black framed by sumptuous multi-colored shadows and lids heavily laden with charcoal black eyeliner – an Arabian princess.  With each step an attendant smoothed out Fatima’s intricately embroidered train while other ladies showered her in rose pedals.  Fatima stepped up onto the runway and proceeded to the red velvet loveseat where she sat, composed, reserved, and glorious, with barely a smile.  Around her, the scene erupted as many well wishers kissed, embraced, and congratulated her while photographers clamored to get their shots of this stunning beauty.  The sight of the lone alluring figure surrounded by rapturous family and friends tugged at my heart; it was a most joyous moment and yet behind the beguiling eyes I sensed a young girl unsettled over entering a distinctly new chapter in her life, removed from the security of her family into the role of wife and mother.  As I gazed upon this lovely bride, I silently shared her excitement and trepidation, willing a kind of mute solidarity with her and wishing her a life of happiness amidst inevitable challenge and change.

The audience commingled, as fierce drumming accompanied by piercing intonations reverberated along the foundations of the hall.  Fatima received her guests for nearly half an hour when a low murmuring filled the room.  The mood shifted and a curious tension began to swell.  The fluid and graceful movements of the dancers were exchanged for fitful and spasmodic gesticulations. Disquieted and fleeting glances ricocheted through the space, and an apprehension hung in the air.  Flustered and unsettled, I furtively scanned the room, struggling to unearth the source of the unease. As if on cue, the aggregation of women stealthfully and nimbly masked their exposed skin with abayes and black headscarves. Sameerah tugged at my scarf and covered her visible kneecaps. The groom’s arrival, along with his father and brothers, and the bride’s father and male siblings, was imminent. Their entrance transformed the activity and energy of the room, bringing a sense of order and male authority to what had previously been an orgiastic celebration of women, pleasure, and decadence. The groom majestically and purposefully strode to the platform, climbed the steps, and made his way to his bride with the male family members dutifully following behind, faces implacable. I caught my breath as a black curtain was draped around the bride.  Sensing my bewilderment and consternation, Sameerah dropped her head and in a hushed tone divulged that custom dictated only the groom, his father, and the bride’s father and brothers were permitted to see and congratulate Fatima; she must remain out of sight of the other male members of the groom’s family. Camera flashes popped around the room like little sizzling bolts of lightning.  The once divine and radiant bride became indiscernible to much of the audience, disappearing even further beneath the throng of family and friends who engulfed her in congratulations.

By nearlymidnight, the male population had whittled down to its one distinguished member—the groom. Elsewhere, the illustrious gathering became briefly distracted and preoccupied with luscious culinary delights; a buffet laden with what looked like an infinite array of Lebanese mezzah – hummus, tabouli, fattoush, babaghanoush, moutabel; lamb, fish and chicken skewered or braised in rich sauces and garlic, swimming in copious measures of parsley and mint, and flat, oval leaven bread piled high in baskets.  This was followed with indulgent and heavenly Arab sweets; baklava, knafeh, and mabroumeh. Trading snatches of conversation over the wonderments of the evening, Sameerah and I put our heads together like excited school girls, feeding our bodies on the sumptuous cuisine and our minds and spirits on the remarkable celebration.

Sameerah and I decided to forgo the dancing and celebration sure to continue unabated through the wee hours of the morning. We would collect our tired, but happy bodies and ruefully wonder what twinges or aches might greet us in the morning, the physical souvenirs of such a spirited evening. Shortly after midnightthe bride and groom unobtrusively made their way to the door amongst a cluster of attendants.  Before exiting, several women delicately cloaked Fatimawith an abaye and black head covering.  This alluring Arabian jewel, like so many others, would now be just another ebony silhouette amongst the featureless masses. But not to me; I would know differently.

** Both photos were taken at mixed-gender Arab weddings, as it is prohibited to take personal photos at “women only” weddings.

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!

Souks of Qatar (Omani, Vegetable, and Fish)

A couple of months ago an American expatriate friend invited me to join her along with a women’s group that would be visiting several souks in Doha.  A souk is an Arab marketplace, often open-air, selling everything imaginable, from spices, to kitchenware, children’s toys, electrical appliances, computers, colorful silk cloth, jewelry, camels and livestock, and so much more.  Some souks sell a variety of different items and others a specific type of item like jewelry, vegetables, or computers and related equipment.  Souks have been around for thousands of years in the Arab world, and historically caravans with goods and materials bought and sold from one another and the nearby townspeople, and even bartered for goods.  Souks were also a place where festivals and various social and cultural functions were held, including poetry readings and general storytelling sessions.

On this particular occasion, against the backdrop of a spring-like sunny Doha day, we would be visiting the Omani, Vegetable, and Fish Souks, all within walking distance of each other and located in the southwest of the city off of Salwa Road and Wholesale Market Street.  The Omani souk, reportedly so-called because many of its goods are imported from nearby Oman, sells quite a hodgepodge of items such as desert truffles, dates, plant pots, watermelon, pomegranate, lemongrass, bamboo, flowers, bushes, palm trees, coconut, baskets, garden materials, and a small assortment of dried fish.  Since it was Tuesday (a weekday), the Omani souk was not overly crowded, just a spattering of Qatari and other Arab men, and a couple of women from northern Africa in intricately designed cotton cloth body wraps.  This, in contrast to early morning Fridays, a weekend and religious day, when the specialty souks, in particular, are abuzz with customers on the lookout for the freshest vegetables, fruit, and fish, and negotiating the best deals with vendors.

Omani Souk (General)

Our first stop at the Omani souk was a desert truffles stand; the vendors were of Southeast Asian origin (from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan), which is typical of souks in the Arabian Gulf region.  Not being one who is terribly interested in cooking (or anything that has to do with the kitchen, for that matter), I had always thought truffles were chocolates; I had no idea they were a form of funghi!

Several of the women were interested in purchasing a box of truffles and splitting the cost and contents amongst themselves.  Although this was a group comprised largely of western women, they were only too aware of the obligatory art of bargaining that accompanies any purchase in a souk.  Several of the women held their ground, as did the vendor, who ultimately left the women empty-handed as the vendor was clearly more interested in haggling over the truffles at individual rates rather than selling them at a reduced bulk rate.

Truffles (or mushrooms) found in the forests of Europe are superior in aroma, taste, and texture to desert truffles, however, according to a Saudi friend, the reason desert truffles are expensive in the Arab Gulf these days is mostly nostalgia based.  My friend divulged that people in the Arabian Peninsula used to cook desert truffles as a substitute for meat, which was prohibitively expensive 50 plus years ago.  At the time, most people of the Arab Gulf had red meat (mutton or camel) no more than a dozen times a year, hence the popularity of desert truffles found under the sand for free, which reminded Gulf Arabs of the texture of meat, (along with some imagination).

Truffles at Omani Souk

The women and I shuffled on to a nearby stand, which included a variety of dates.  Having lived in the Arabian Peninsula since late 2000, I’ve become acutely aware of the significance of dates in this region and the different ways they can be prepared.  Dates are grown in four stages, including kimri (unripe), khalal (crunchy and fully grown), rutab (ripe and soft), and tamr (ripe and sun-dried).  The tamr dates may even be compressed in a container made of the palm tree “leaves” and left to age for some time.  I cannot count the times I’ve been served dates along with cardamom coffee in Arab friends’ homes, (a common form of Arab hospitality), usually in rutab or tamr form, sometimes with the pit replaced with an almond or sprinkled with bits of sesame seed.  While important, culturally, to the larger Arab population, date palms are actually a critical part of the desert Bedouin’s diet, who could survive harsh desert conditions for months consuming dates and water alone.  During Ramadan the fast is broken by eating dates, which are rich in vitamins and minerals.  Dates are also used for medicinal purposes, as a Qatari friend told me that when she was a child her mother used a mixture of heated tamr dates with olive oil as a compress for a twisted ankle.

Dates in the Omani Souk

The Omani Souk is contained in an open warehouse, and besides truffles and dates includes an assortment of ceramic and clay pots in a variety of hues with some lovely engravings; straw hats and colorful woven baskets; plastic bags of dried sardines; and a small collection of fruits including watermelon, coconut, pomegranate (a favorite of mine), sweet potatoes, and what my Lebanese husband, Bishara, calls “green cherries” (otherwise known as “janarik,” which are unripened plums).  As a child in Jordan and Lebanon, Bishara used to eat “green cherries,” which look like miniature green apples and are sour-tasting, with a dousing of salt.  The predominant items in the Omani Souk seem to be flowers and other leafy plants, ranging from daisies, to hydrangeas, sunflowers, chrysanthemums, pansies, and the odd bonsai tree.

Bonsai Tree & Plant Pots in Omani Souk

Baskets in Omani Souk

Dried Fish in Omani Souk

Fruit & Vegetables in Omani Souk

Flowers in Omani Souk # 3

The Vegetable Souk, right next door to the Omani souk, sports a large array of vegetables and some fruit, (mostly imported from Lebanon and Syria), such as tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers, squash, garlic, red and yellow peppers, red and green grapes, bananas, oranges, kiwi, pears, plums, apricots, squash, robbi (turnip), pineapple, strawberries, and purple and white eggplant (which I had never heard of before).  A young Egyptian woman in our group said she wanted to buy some eggplant, as she would be making Mahshee, stuffed eggplant with rice and onion, for dinner.  Although my newfound Egyptian friend disclosed that white eggplant is actually more tender and tastier than the purple version, she would be using the purple eggplant, which is the traditional ingredient in Mahshee.  The Vegetable Souk is heavily populated with men, usually of Southeast Asian origin like the vendors, who will assist you with your purchases by placing them in a wheelbarrow or rolling platform and follow you around, even taking your haul to the car and unloading your purchases for you.  Of course, a small tip is appreciated.

Vegetable Souk # 1

White Eggplant & Turnips at Vegetable Souk

Me at Vegetable Souk

Man w/Red Beard at Vegetable Souk

We eventually moved on to the Fish Market, a mix of sights, sounds, and smells (many not so pleasant), and quite a variety of fish with a convenient cleaning/gutting service.  Qatar shares a short border with Saudi Arabia to its south and its remaining three sides are surrounded by the Arabian Gulf waters, hence the abundance of fresh fish.  Fish available in Qatar includes, but is not limited to, Hammour (Grouper), Sherri, Prawns, Blue Crabs, Kanad (or Kingfish), Squid, and White Pomfret, and Sultan Ibrahim (Red Mullet).  The mention of Sultan Ibrahim later that evening brought back sentimental memories for my husband, Bishara, of the wonderful occasions during his childhood in southern Lebanon when his mother fried this special fish enjoyed by the entire family while Bishara’s father smoked sheesha and drank arak on the back patio of their home in the mountains.  I found the blue crabs dazzling, and knew they were indigenous to the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia having had many of these delectable delights in soft shell form (another favorite) when we were living in the Washington, DC area, but was surprised to find out they were also caught in the Arabian Gulf.  The Fish Market was a real treat and is now a favorite destination where we regularly purchase fresh Hammour and Sherri, which we love to grill on weekend evenings.

Blue Crabs at Fish Market

Fish at Fish Market # 2

King Fish at Fish Market

View of Fish Souk

Grilled Hammour (Grouper) Recipe:

Ingredients

  1. 250 g hamour fillet
  2. 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  3. 2 tablespoons olive oil
  4. 1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
  5. ½ teaspoon dried tarragon
  6. salt and pepper
  7. 200 g potatoes, boiled
  8. 150 g green peas, boiled
  9. 20 g fresh mint leaves, chopped
  10. 50 ml milk
  11. 3 tablespoons butter
  12. 1 teaspoonfresh parsley, chopped
  13. 1 pinch nutmeg

Directions

  1. Mix lemon juice, olive oil, ginger-garlic paste, tarragon herb, salt and pepper to make a marinade.
  2. Marinate the hammour fillet in this for a few hours or overnight for best results.
  3. Grill it over the charcoal griller.
  4. Saute garlic in butter.
  5. Toss mint and greenpeas in it.
  6. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Mash grated potatoes in a pan.
  8. Add milk, butter, salt, pepper and nutmeg gradually until creamy in texture.
  9. Finish off with cream and parsley.
  10. Arrange the grilled hammour in the centre of your serving plate.
  11. Serve hot with salad and other accompaniments such as lemon butter sauce.

From: http://www.plaincook.com/grilled-hammour-Recipe-2007-06-23/