Tuesday, 11 November 2008

More Qatar Contrasts

Now that the weather is much more bearable- you can stand outside without melting- we are beginning again to explore our surroundings. Last week we were taken down the THE PEARL, a fully manmade island off the coast of Doha which is shaped like a pearl shell with an inland harbour. There will eventually be thousands of people living here in high rise apartments and villas and houses with an elegant shopping/coffee strip and extravagant places to moor boats all around the inland perimeter. This island has been designed in architectural sections- the first part finished is supposed to resemble Venice. They have been selling off these apartments over the past 2 years to anyone who has 10% deposit to put down. We have several friends who have invested in this project and who hope to cover their repayments when the time comes by renting their apartments out for a very high rent. It will be the place to live for those who like to be in a community where all facilities are at your fingertips and everything looks sparkling new with no expense spared when it comes to quality fittings. The best way to demonstrate this part of town is to attach photos for your perusal. I believe that the cost of apartments is rising quite quickly, so if  you are thinking of an investment in the Middle East, perhaps this is the one!
The next day we drove with a convoy of 4WD vehicles into the desert heading for the inland sea. Of course the first thing you do is to let much of the air out of your tyres. The second thing you do is head on up a large sand hill until you are at the top, ready to descend an equally steep drop on the other side. At this point I leapt out of the car and walked down the hill to take photographs (well, that was my excuse). I had read many times in our local papers that there have been many bad accidents in this part of the world, so I was not willing to take chances. Steve loved it of course. As we wound our way further along the coast for an hour, I really enjoyed being amongst white sand dunes again and when we stopped at the edge of the inland sea to have lunch and a swim it felt wonderful to be there. Across the inland sea you can see Saudi, behind a huge nest of Osprey perched on a little island. On our way home our 15 year old took the wheel and really enjoyed himself as he drove across the sand on the way home. Quite weird to be finally driven by your son! The thing that intrigued me out there were the tents perched in seaside places all along the coastline. I found out that Qataris can pay a yearly fee of 500QR (about $180) to 'rent' the space where their tent permanently sits. This means that they have a beachside home for very little for as long as they like. What a wonderful idea- I don't think we expats are allowed to do this but we will enquire.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

From Curry to Grits to Orchestras to tennis in Doha

Just to prove that this is a city that is offering everything, I will tell you about our last couple of days here in Doha. We decided to eat out on Thursday night (beginning of the weekend ) and took some friends to a restaurant we had heard was good. Sure enough, we had the most wonderful Indian meal in a gorgeous setting nearby. Cost? $15 each and we were well fed with delicious curries and biryani and such. The following morning we were invited to Riks for breakfast, just to set the weekend into relaxing mode. We finally found this little place in the back of a dusty car park in a part of town we do not know very well. It was like stepping into Mary's Restaurant in Hibbing, where the menu is the same as Riks- you can eat grits, hot cakes and gravy, omelette and eggs easy over, hash browns of a sort and even a kind of bacon made from something other than pork of course. Sitting at our table were two Harley riders who had just been for their regular morning spin around Qatar- leaving at 5.30 a.m. to avoid heat and dangerous driving! I had to pinch myself to remember where I really was. 
That evening we dressed up in our fancy clothes and ventured out to the National Theatre where the new Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra were to perform their first ever concert. This orchestra has been collected from all around the world in the past year, with musicians from 30 different countries; many parts of Europe, Asia, Russia, Uk and America. Unfortunately I couldn't find one Australian or New Zealander, but never mind. They were predominantly young people who were obviously incredibly talented. 101 of them play traditional orchestral instruments and this group played Beethoven and Ravel in the first half. From the moment they began there was the most delicious balance of instruments and we were just transported into another world. In the second half we heard the World Premiere of the Arabian Concerto, composed by Marcel Khalife , who is a world famous oud player (has toured Australia). He was asked to compose this piece for the orchestra and it became a wonderful blend of the traditional orchestral sounds and those of 5 incredible musicians playing Tabla, Bouzouq, Ney, Qanoun and Oud. The music was truly wonderful, understandably coming out of the mind of such a man-  what a treat to be at this concert, with the composer quietly sitting behind us in the audience. I read on my program that he has been named the music director and the resident composer of this newly founded orchestra. What other treats might we be in store for?? I loved the Arabic feel of this rolling, majestic piece of music. He must have been bursting with pride listening to his beautiful orchestra last night.
So what next? Tomorrow brings the start of the tennis tournament nearby. The Sony Ericson Championships where we get to see such greats as; S Williams, Ivanovic, Dementieva, Safina and Jankovic. My seat cost $2.50 so I think I will be getting my money's worth!! 

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Reaching out

As part of the Ramadan experience and also part of the community service projects students at Qatar Academy have to complete, last week we took three truckloads of food to a very impoverished area of Doha that you tend to not see unless you know they are there. This compound was wedged in between larger buildings and new construction and was sitting  behind a fence in a dusty yard. The houses were home made of what looked like mud bricks, each had a very dusty old air conditioner perched in the wall and each also had a steel door with a softer covering of carpet or old cloth draped across it. We arrived there in three large buses, followed by the trucks, directed by 3 Qatari men who were in charge of this particular charity operation. In Muslim countries it is required by religious law to donate a percentage of your wealth to a charity of your choosing. These men seemed to be in charge of distributing our donations to this particular area. 
As we pulled up I noticed a broken down yellow bus with what seemed like no-one on it. As soon as we stopped out tumbled an assortment of young men, climbing out the windows, the windscreen, the roof and the door. They were part of a larger group of children who all ran towards us to find out what we were doing there. The students unloaded our boxes and proceeded to knock on doors to give their gifts. It was an unbearably hot day but a very rewarding one. We were told that the average income here is around 1000 QR per month ($300) and it was apparent that there were families with many mouths to feed peeking out at us as we toured this village. I noticed that there were many Pakistani or Indian families, all dressed in their sparkly dresses, for this week has been a very important Hindu festival (I believe we call it Diwali or the festival of lights). I am sure that many of our somewhat rich students were humbled by what they saw during this exercise. Steve suggested a game of soccer for next visit but we were told that this would not be a safe thing to do because these boys do not go to school- not sure why.
Steve has also befriended some Phillipino workers from our school (who also earn around this amount each month) and an Egyptian builder who he met on the Corniche one night. He now spends his time taking them to the beach for night picnics, which he and they love. The men sit on the beach until the wee hours of the morning. Around 2 a.m. it is usual for them all to strip off to their underwear and go in for a swim together. Women have all gone home by then. Often families come for a picnic at around 10 p.m. and the beach is the most crowded place in town. Making connections across the whole community we find ourselves in is very important to both of us. We need to be reminded of the realities of life outside this bubble of wealth in the Middle East. 

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Ramadan in Doha

It's been a while since I had the time to write. Our time at home was bitter sweet- the bitter part was to say goodbye to my mum who finally died of ovarian cancer. The sweetness of this was the grace of spending the last two months of her life with her as she regressed from adult to child again. Even her voice faded - it was a really gentle journey for us all. No more worrying from either side!
We arrived back home in the holy month of Ramadan to find a much more subdued world around us. As this was the month of fasting for all Muslims you do not see anyone eating or drinking from dawn to dusk anywhere. The shopping centres only open for minimum purchases during the day, with the evenings being their usual trading hours up until the wee hours of the morning. As non-muslims we of course observed the respectful rule of not eating or drinking in front of anyone during the day, making it quite a different world for us to live in. One morning in desperation Steve and I were to be seen hiding in our car in a car park sipping coffee with our heads ducked low. (you could only buy it to take away in a few places). Nevertheless fasting is not really a time for deprivation, it is a very important spiritual event in any Muslim's life. Fasting for the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam and is designed to show love, devotion and fear.(of not maintaining a proper attitude towards God). 
Here in Doha the evenings come alive as families eat dates before a huge dinner to break their fast together (Iftar) and spend extra time in prayer. This is the time that many families go to Makkah, the last 10 days being the most intense- considered a spiritual retreat time. Of course there is also a wonderful sense of celebration as evening falls, and tents are set up all over the place where you can eat wonderful food, see whirling dervishes and hear live music. Children like to try a day or two without eating, and are very proud when they can manage this. 
It is strange being back to normal with coffee shops open and people out and about again. 

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Australia

Been home now for a few weeks and it feels like we have never been away except for that tug every time I think of the magical moments of Doha. We have stepped into the realities of a 'free society' and all that comes with this idea. Our greatest concern is still with the teenagers. When you are surrounded by a world that encourages and endorses drinking, partying, sexual activity and mind-altering experiences of all kinds, it becomes very difficult for kids to make wise choices for themselves. Luckily we are able to talk freely with all of Jonah's friends who hang out here in large and small groups. They are all beautiful young men preparing themselves for that huge jump into adulthood with great excitement and it is so interesting to hear them speak about what is going on around them. It appears that regular alcohol use, drug experimentation and sexual activity amongst people as young as 13 is happening in their world on a daily basis. How hard it would be to resist joining the 'normal' expectation of this. What a huge problem for teachers, parents, caregivers and mentors to deal with. It seems that some parents don't even know what is going on or even encourage the idea of drinking to have fun! We can only be glad that we have shown our son another way of being and that we also have a strong line of communication still open between us. In the meantime we are vigilant and careful with him. We love it when he has a team of boys sleeping in his room and yet we are not so naive as to think that this is the way it will always be! Bringing up kids today is harder than ever.
The sun still shines and the birds still warble all around us as the whales swim on by, oblivious to the dangers of all of this! Off for my walk on the beach and a session with the acapuncturist, then a Latte Soy Dandelion (LSD) in my favourite cafe. Perhaps this 'alternate' way of life is filtering into my consciousness as well!

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Home in Australia

How weird it is to arrive back in Australia after spending 6 months in the Middle East. The first thing to greet you in Brisbane are the rules about importing wood or food or drugs or or or. If the announcements aren't scary enough ("You will be caught."), the sniffer dogs clinch the deal. They cruise the baggage area with their long-sock owners, sniffing everything in sight while you stand there worrying if you have forgotten a piece of wood or a crumb of food in your bags. There is an air of disbelief and concern in the customs area as you try to exit the airport. The bags are xrayed as well, in case you have lied on the form and in case the little dog has missed something. It is quite the welcome to our wonderful country, and of course I understand the reasons, but it is very daunting. Then there's that lovely Australian accent to get used to again. A slow drawl with stretched vowels and down to earth people.
I hopped into my car and drove over to visit my very ill mum. I edged out carefully onto the left hand side of the road, approaching my first roundabout with caution. Of course, I had forgotten momentarily that I was back home in the land of 'people who follow road rules'. No-one crossed in front of me, cut around me, dodged left then right. I have to watch myself for doing any of these things, or for travelling above the speed limit, heaven forbid.
Tomorrow I think I will go and politely queue for a movie, where noone will answer their mobile phone or talk loudly.
Hmm, are we too conservative, afraid of germs/sun spots, predictable and boring??

Monday, 2 June 2008

Our New Grandson

While our lives have been ticking along here in Doha, our beautiful daughter in law has cleverly given birth to another beautiful grandson. I was recently in London to visit them all and to watch them prepare for this new baby in their little flat in Crouch End. Our little Otso had already decided that he was getting a new brother and had been thinking about names for him already. His favourite at the time I was there was Pappadum. He liked the rhythm of it. So Nathan and Otso had painted his new bedroom (made from a large storage room). It was turning out to be a lovely little room with high ceilings and an old fireplace/bookshelf and a window. Otso chose soft green for his main wall and Nathan put stars on the ceiling for him in readiness for the day he could move in. I don't think he actually sleeps there yet, but it is a lovely place for him to call his own.
Kai joined us a couple of weeks ago and is a gorgeous little boy with dark hair and a sweet face. We will meet him in August when we return from Australia. My plan is to go to the Edinburgh festival again where Nat will be playing if anyone wants to join me!!

Impressions of Syria

This week I went for a little jaunt to Syria with a friend of mine who was travelling through this way. My overall comment would be that Syria is a land of enormous potential, exceptionally rich archaeological remains, a living museum to important ancient history that is emerging out of some dark times with a smile and a chaotic air. If you travel to Syria you must be ready to step back in time in all senses of the phrase. My sense of disorder began when I applied for my visa in the embassy downtown in Doha. I waited in what I thought was a queue but soon realised that a Syrian queue is one where the front person is being served and the line from thereon bulges to an increasing size as new people arrive. You must walk around the side of the line it seems and then push your way in. Having this little bit of knowledge was helpful when arriving in Damascus at the passport line. You need to firmly hold your ground and edge up closely to the person in front who is hopefully holding his place as firmly until you kind of push your way to the counter where all manner of things might be happening. (interruptions from other agents etc). This part was relatively easy compared to the baggage claim area. We found two belts with no signs, so we were not sure which was our particular luggage. Alongside this there are men pulling bags off the belts randomly and placing them in various spots around the airport. Along with this there are people pushing trolleys they had somehow managed to pay for and picking up bags and pushing their way through the very crowded area. I found my bag sitting quietly in the middle of the baggage claim area and an abandoned trolley which I just 'took' (seemed to be the local method). My friend Christina did not manage to find hers at all and she has gone on to Jordan without it. There was a 'lost and found' place in the airport but the information that was collected from her was not correct and we somehow were not allowed to change it, so perhaps this is a truly lost bag. The next time I go to Syria I will take only a carry-on and avoid this terrible experience. The outgoing  trip was difficult but a lot easier than the ingoing experience.
Our guide was waiting for us and was a truly lovely Syrian man, Basel, with that smile that is typical of all Syrian people. His car was supposed to be air conditioned but he seemed to prefer to drive with the windows open as we hurtled towards the city centre. 
Damascus to me was a very 'untidy' city, evidence of the confusing history of change and political upheavals. The city has sprawled hugely to let in all of the refugees heading towards a safer place. There is a suburb of people from Golan Heights, another from Palestine, many Lebanese, Iraqis, Pakistanis, etc, all of whom have come to Damascus to live more peacefully. There is a wonderful hillside perching above town, of illegal dwellings built from grey brick and tin that are now permanent because of the law of habitation there. The government have now sent electricity to these hillside dwellers and a road runs nearby. At night you can see lights twinkling on the hillside, an enchanting sight. One morning I found two little boys wandering around in dirty clothes. I am sure there are a lot of street dwellers also.
Our hotel was supposed to be three star but judging from the state of the room with a window to the outside that didn't lock, and a smoking neighbour - the smoke drifting through a crack in the adjoining door- it was really only 2 star by our standards, our first night was rather uncomfortable. We soon found that throughout Syria there is a smoking policy- that is to say, even when there is a 'no-smoking' sign in an airport or such, there are still smokers who light up. The restaurants encourage smoking with lovely ashtrays everywhere and so of course our hotel did not have any smoke free areas. We found the same with shops, banks etc. so you just have to grin and bear it. 
In order to give Christina some clean clothes we set out to the local downtown area which turned out to be an older part of town with a large market place where the locals all shop until 10.p.m. It was lovely just wandering around some very old cobbled streets with prices of clothes almost unbelievable (even before you started bargaining) I found my favourite undies (Triumph) for $3 a pair. So I stocked up on them and a Puma tracksuit($20 a piece) for Jonah and shoes and such. Christina managed to find some $10 items to get her through the next few days. I suspect that the designer labels we were buying, although of excellent quality, were not truly the labels advertised, simply clever copies. I am not sure about this.
Syria is known for many wonderful crafts and our trip to the Soukh the next day proved this. They make, of course, the famous Damask cotton items, like table cloths and such. There was also carpets you would die for, silver, brass lighting, furniture with mother of pearl imbedded in it, camel hair woven clothing, beads, tiles.......what a wonderful, wonderful feast for the eyes (and the suitcase!). We sat in many shops and were served hospitality tea while we checked things out. I managed to buy three rugs and Christina a beautiful silver pendant. There were also many religious artifacts (another of Christina's purchases) and too many other treats to mention. We were really there to see the great Mosque Umayyad  where the head of John the Baptist sits. This mosque is one of the great monuments of early Islam and is huge. We had to wear a borrowed abaya in order to go in. Photographs are allowed here so we have a few to sort through. The National Museum was another of our stops with a wonderful collection of things including my favourite, the very first alphabet ever written, on a small stone. The most unusual thing about this museum is that if you manage to get a guide in a quiet place, he will take you somewhere you are not supposed to go and try to get you to take photographs of very, very old things for a small tip!! I guess this is the way they try to eke out a living on their meagre wage. Pretty sad really.
Traffic in Damascus is as chaotic and disorganised as the queue, with two lanes becoming four each moment. The buildings seem to be unfinished and tend to be built from the local grey brick often with wire and posts sticking out from the top in case someone one day will want to put another level on top. In between this there are amazing old buildings that have lasted the test of time, seemingly built out of mud, straw, wood. This makes for a rather disjointed, ugly city from the outside appearance. It is the opposite of here I guess, where appearance is everything. In Syria the outside appearance seems ugly with the inside being welcoming, charming, exciting and sweet all in one. I loved the way the ATM worked near our hotel. ATMs are new to Damascus and so there are many people in that bulging line clutching little bits of plastic with no idea how to make them give money. On a piece of paper they will have written their pin number and everyone in line will help with the transaction while all peering at the screen over the shoulder of the person in front. One woman had actually brought cards from 6 of her friends to get money for them as well, so she took quite some time. The best idea is to have plenty of time and a sense of humour at all times.
We spent an overnight in Palmyra also, which is situated in the desert on the old silk road(how exciting!). On the way we visited the Krak des Chevaliers, a beautiful medieval Crusader castle which still stands on top of its hill with the seats of the round table still sitting in the sun for all to see and sit on!! I took a moment or two to sit and ponder.  I cannot describe this tour, it would be better for you to read about it if interested. Only to say that we were overwhelmed by just being there.
On to Palmyra with the window still down and the blood heating up(38 degrees) , to another very ordinary 'hotel' where the shower leaked badly and the toilet rocked, but outside the balcony there was one of the world's great historical sites! This of course is Syria's prime attraction as the ruins of this ancient city spread over 10 square km , with parts of it clearly intact including the road that ran through the middle, a huge temple, a theatre and tombs. I am not doing it justice in one sentence, so , again you would need to read about it. The fact of being able to walk where ancient people walked and traded and dreamed is a truly humbling experience.
On our way back to Damascus we stopped at one of the Baghdad Cafes- a wonderful experience by itself. There are a few enterprising Bedouin families who have set up backpacker places with a Bedouin tent, a mud and straw dome hut and a little restaurant which has so much charm it is worth spending a while there. They are all called Baghdad Cafe and probably all offer the same charming hospitality.
I have skimmed through the trip, not wanting to bore anyone. I can recommend a visit to Syria before it is too late. It will be 'modernized' I am sure. It is such an important place in our world, representing our historical past from the Early Bronze Age through periods like the Crusades, the Marmalukes, the Ottomans, the French- who finally left it alone in only 1946! You would need a month or more to fully explore all that it has to offer. 
If you want a fully trustworthy guide choose Basel. fax : 00963-115317185
He will sort out hotels much more suitable than ours. We had ours arranged by another tour company unfortunately. He can also take you anywhere in Syria you wish to go (just ask for the A/C to be turned on perhaps!) Basel even took us to his humble home and his beautiful wife prepared a wonderful feast for us with that true Syrian hospitality. (women here are free to wear modern clothes, tourists need not worry about covering up).
We also found the most wonderful fully restored house in the middle of the Soukq which, although more expensive than our hotel, is a truly beautiful tribute to earlier Damascan times.
The Beit Al Joury Hotel, a place for movie stars and you!
www.beit-al-joury.com
Do yourself a favour and look it up! 

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Pictures of Doha

A beautiful house being demolished and reduced to steel and stone. Why?

A worker on his bike, pedalling away from the ruins of a demolished mansion with the remains of a huge chandelier tinkling as he wobbles along the road trying to balance this gorgeous thing on his handlebars. Taking it where?

A baby camel sitting on the back of a ute, with just his neck and head popping up to view the passers by. Going where?

A pet cheetah with a collar in the back of a family 4WD, being let out for a run in the desert by his owner, a 10 year old boy. Dad had given it to him for a present, brought in from Africa somewhere. How?

A worker with his face and head wrapped up with cloth while he works in 48 degree heat on a building site. (some of them for 16 hour shifts) ???

A shop selling hooded falcons wearing little leather vests to match.

A camel race with little robotic jockeys on each one, while the trainers in cars hurtle alongside the track from the start to the end of the race.  With an electronic device?

An old man chopping up pomegranates to make me a fresh juice.

A pre-3 year old child in full school uniform going to preschool for 5 hours every day.

The laundry always full of long white robes.

Shops selling gaudy, extravagant, frilly, sequinned, elaborate, colourful dresses in all sizes from children's to women's.

A woman in full black abaya and chador with only her eyes peeping out, giving me a lift home.

A huge concrete tree trunk emerging out of the desert to support the new Convention Centre.

An Iranian Restaurant lined with coloured glass from floor to ceiling, where we sit on the floor to eat.

A young boy in a white thobe riding a three-wheeler bike (very popular).

A Sri Lankan maid carrying the heavy school bag of the Grade 6 son of her host family.











Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Another week in Doha

I am teaching a class in the Elementary School how to play the Maori Stick Game. They will perform this at the end of the school year in June, with my little ukulele group accompanying them. Because it is only a Grade 2 class, I was figuring that they would not be able to actually throw the sticks and catch across the gap, so I was planning to simply have them touch the sticks in the centre. The sticks are made from magazines rolled up so that little hands can manage them without ending up with loud dropping noises etc. This little class is made up of local children with a smattering of expat children as well, but I would say that it is predominantly Arabic /Muslim kids. Of course there are the boys in the class who tell me that music is 'Haram' so they don't have to do it. This is simply a naughty boy trying to use an excuse. I point out that music is a very important part of their culture, especially for males and remind them to go down to the Souq in the evenings to watch their men playing, singing and dancing. They continue to try and tell me that it is only for weddings but I have their game by now, as I know that very soon there will be Music University built right here beside us specifically for the purpose of housing the Qatar National Orchestra. So, having won that argument, I plow on to teach Maori Stick Games to this class. As it turns out, many of the children are thrilled with this activity and are soon trying to throw the sticks with great success. As my class was finishing recently, a gorgeous pair came up to me with such excitement. 
"We did it all without dropping, Miss. I just prayed to Allah before we started and then we made no mistakes!" 
"Yes," agreed the other child,"that's what we did, prayed to Allah and it worked!!"
"Oh," I replied."What a good idea, I will try that next time. Thanks for letting me know."
How sweet is that? 
The other class is learning an Australian Bush Dance- 'heel,toe, heel,toe, slide together ,slide together, heel toe, heel, toe slide together slide together. 1 2 3, 1 2 3 , 1 2 3, 1 2 3 etc etc" They sing these words to me as they enter the room in their Arabic accents. This is a Grade 1 class and I am trying to persuade the girls not to wear glittery, sparkly, frilly skirts with tulle and lace. I don't think they quite have the concept of Bush as we know it. Oh well, should be a laugh if nothing else.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Doha Ukulele Collective


Yes, it's happening! I have formed a ukulele collective against all odds. The main odds being that you cannot buy ukuleles in Doha, so we have had to bribe, cajole and beg people to bring them in from overseas any time someone travels. (our lovely CEO brought in 4 on his last trip).  Every three weeks or thereabouts, we meet at our house for a couple of hours playing session. This has been all by word of mouth, as it is no use advertising something when there are not enough instruments! After our next holiday I am sure that Doha will be inundated with ukuleles. The collective is made up of adults from all over the place. Already we have New Zealand, Australian, American, Latvian members, most of whom are beginners. It is amazing how keen they all are and so we are quickly adding more and more chords to our repertoire. Next week will be our third meeting only and I expect to have 12 people attending, from a beginning night of 5. So word is spreading. I also have two children's classes going as an after-school activity. They are loving it, and in these classes I have Qatari children as well (one from the Royal Family), which I am delighted about. At present I believe 2 big sisters are carrying in ukuleles from overseas as well. These families have never heard of this instrument, so I think I have started something! We will be playing at the end of year Primary School concert so I am sure that next year it will probably be a full time job! So you see, Uke can change the world!

Contrasts

As I sit in my comfortable house and listen to the television about all of the world's worries, I realise again what contrasts exist in our world. Being here is being in a world of huge contrast with money being the dividing factor. We are living in someone's dream here, with an endless supply of money to achieve the goals of the dream , which are very noble as they are all related to education and the improvement of the lives of Qatari people. It is sometimes quite overwhelming when I see how these dreams are being brought to fruition. All around our compound there used to be some very nice houses, built out of concrete and steel, carefully designed with arches and palm trees and courtyards. I remember writing about one of these compounds in an earlier blog, with a large house and a smaller house in the same yard. Unfortunately this house and many others in our neighbourhood are in the way of something in the dream. Perhaps it will be the new Music University which will house the Qatari Symphony Orchestra or maybe the golf course which will be one of the best in the world, or perhaps the state of the art hospital to be built by 2011 beside us somewhere? No matter what it will be, these lovely houses(some of which were only just being built) must be removed. So each day this week there have been huge machines with large concrete-bashing bits hammering away at nearby houses. In one day each house is flattened, leaving a pile of twisted steel and powdery concrete in its wake. The steel is collected to recycle(I hope) and the concrete cleared away ready for another building. I am struggling a bit with the mentality of this. I know that the families concerned have been handsomely paid out to move, and I know that there is a plan in place to improve lives but it seems so disrespectful of the past, the local history which is being lost hit by hit. Perhaps I am being too sentimental, but the priority here is certainly to have everything looking glamorous on the outside. I cannot imagine the cost involved in doing this! And this week it was Andrea Boccelli who came to sing at the graduation ceremony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, not Sarah Brightman(she had to cancel) . 

Saturday, 3 May 2008

A Father's Dilemna

I am presently tutoring three girls from the same Qatari family so I drive to the house twice a week. In my discussions with the father, I have realised how hard it must be for this nation to accept all of the changes being introduced here. Over the past 10 years there has been a huge amount of development occurring which has brought with it shopping centres, co-educational schools, western schools of thought (particulary in the field of education), other religious practices etc. This is a real dilemna for people who have been here for their entire life, brought their children up to be quite sheltered and protected from the outside world and yet who want to embrace the good things about western cultures while absolutely opposing the bad things. This father has three young women about to enter adulthood. They wear abayas dutifully when in public, but when at home they are as western as any young girl could be.  They have laptops of their own, television programs from all around the world and are attending a school with boys from many other cultures. Here in Qatar there is very little to do for kids except go to movies and shopping centres and fast food restaurants. But this father is unwilling to let his girls do any of these as he is afraid of what might happen. He knows about sexual promiscuity amongst teenagers in other countries, he sees that there is a liquor store in Doha now (only men can have a license to buy and must take the alcohol straight home), so he is truly worried and wants to bring his girls back to the safest place he can think of, which is home with him. The girls are not happy but are also stuck somewhere between cultures. I have to be very careful about the content of any passages I choose to teach them with and I always have to cover my shoulders and knees when I visit. So at the moment I, too, am stuck between two cultures. To be honest, we do not miss the alcoholic component of life and clearly see what damage it has done to places we call home. We are happy for our son also to be in this drug free environment. But it is lucky that there are many lovely girls on our compounds for him have genuine friendships with. More food for thought.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Steve and Jonah

I realise that I have been talking a lot about myself in my blogs, so perhaps I should spend a little time on my boys to update you all as to their progress. Steve first, who with his counseling partner Paula, has developed the counselor department into a wonderful place where kids, parents and teachers can come to talk about any social/emotional problems they have. I know that the children love to drop in to see Steve and trust him implicitly. I also know that he has helped many of them already and is well supported by the staff and admin of the school. He has been asked to be head of department next year and has already designed his new set of offices in another, quieter wing of the school. He will also have 2 new counselors on the team for next year so things are going to be busier I am sure, but perhaps easier. He works very hard as usual so the weeks go by with just work and sleep until the weekend when it is more sleep and lots of quiet home time. I can sometimes get him out for a coffee during the school day, but very rarely as his office is always busy.
Jonah has had many ups and downs while beginning here. This is a more British System of schooling,  following the International Baccalaureate program. He finds it very intense and yet we see that he is rising to the occasion against his wishes! Steve has to spend time with him regularly on Maths that he has missed and he has found it hard to catch up as the program is so fast and intense and builds all the time on previous concepts taught. However, he managed to gain a mark well above other new kids in the class, so we are expecting that he will continue to do OK. As he missed the first part of this year, his end of year exams will also be difficult and so we will not really know how he is doing until next full year. Jonah has many friends, and each weekend he is out at someone's house, usually his Lebanese and Jordanian friends. They are lovely boys who go to movies, to the shopping centre to wander around or eat and then hang at home. It is still a very innocent world here with no alcohol, no drugs and no dating to speak of. Jonah is trying to also link up with an Australian group of kids who tend to hang out together as well on a compound near here. This will be another positive step. He is still battling with loss of friends at home although they are on the web all the time to each other. He still has tennis coaching twice a week, has dropped soccer because of cultural differences (they just don't use the same techniques for passing etc) and has not become involved in any music yet. He is also having great difficulty picking up on his Spanish which surprises us. We think he just doesn't like to be wrong and so is holding back until he feels totally confident.
We are not at all sure about our time limit here. Steve and I are happy to stay as long as we like, there are many wonderful things to look forward to. Jonah still has his heart set on leaving next June and so we might not be able to dissuade him. Our trip home this June will perhaps give him some clarification on how he truly feels. When we return to here our recreation centre will be ready to open to us with indoor pools, outdoor pools, gyms, play areas, shops, places where he can invite his friends to hang out. It is accessible by overhead walkways from here and will be a great bonus for us all. Other people living in Doha have to join a club in order to have access to these sorts of things. We are so lucky and so well looked after. We shall see what plays out for the best path for us all.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Free Things

Living here is truly interesting, if you have time to do all of the things on offer. This past week I attended an evening with a Nigerian-born poet Chris Abani. His poems and novels are widely sold and he is a well-known presenter around the world, dealing mostly with human rights issues which stem from his early experience of being placed in solitary confinement in a hole in the ground which he had to dig himself. He was there for 6 months, fed through a hole every 4 days and survived to tell his story and the story of many others. It was a riveting evening with a gentle giant of a man who has somehow managed to find love in all of this. The venue was our local Arts Unversity,  VCU and it was all free, including the food and the wonderful book of poems entitled Hands Washing Water. The next day I took a cab to the Sheraton where I had heard that there was an International Documentary film convention hosted by Al Jazeera, our local  excellent television network. I was absolutely blown away for want of a better expression. Again the venue was truly elegant, there were 4 spaces where these wonderful documentaries were being screened. It seemed that many of the film makers were also attending to discuss their film. I managed in a very sort time to see documentaries about; the life of a volkswagon beetle in Brazil- meeting all of its owners - fascinating(KVZ-1348); the journey of a photographer and a handicapped boy from Delhi to the mountains where the Dalai Lama resides, also fascinating and filmed totally by these two, a must-see (Bullets and Butterflies), and several others entitled Say Goodbye, (a family in Gaza), Symphonic Poem (about a Kuwaiti musician). I am so mad that I only attended one day of this festival, I had found out about it too late. I am carrying the program with me so that I can catch up on  some of those I missed which look unbelievable. Again this event was totally free to the public and I came home with gifts as well! I have said this before but it needs to be said again that I do love living here! I am looking forward at present to the graduation ceremony for all of our university students here on Education City from the Universities (Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A and M, Virginia Commonwealth U,  Carnegie Mellon U Georgetown Uni, Faculty of Islamic Studies) here. This year there will be around 20 students graduating (it is all very new!) For the celebration and graduation ceremony the Queen (Sheikha Moza)  has invited the London Royal Philharmonic? Orchestra along with Sarah Brightman to perform before and during the ceremony. It will all be held outside in the ceremonial court specially designed for these things! It has water, white posts, lights, steps, marble etc etc. You just can't believe it sometimes!

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Arabic

It is becoming more necessary to me to be able to use some Arabic phrases simply out of courtesy and respect for the culture I find myself in. The population of Qatar is only 14% Qatari people but in fact there are around 53% Arabic speakers, with 33% of other nationalities, so you can see that we are outnumbered by far. The other Arabic speakers of course come from many surrounding countries and many of them have made Doha their permanent place of residence. My doctor is Jordanian, the dentist from Lebanon and our Admissions Officer is from Sudan. This is just a tiny example of the nationalities represented here but my decision to learn basic Arabic is so that I can at least greet people correctly and exchange the niceties that this long greeting requires. The type of Arabic spoken here is Fusha, which is very rich in phrases and respect gestures as well as being a social language. Body language and facial expression is used a lot as well and you often hear people conversing in loud voices. This makes the classes at school sometimes pretty noisy!
My favourite greetings so far are:
assalam alaykum: peace be upon you
wa'alaykum salam: and upon you be peace
sabah al khair: good morning
sabah an noor: may your morning be bright
misaa al khair: good afternoon/evening
misaa an noor: may your evening be bright
marhaba:          welcome
marhabtain: a double welcome to you
ma'a salaamah: farewell/go in safety
Allah yesalmik: May Allah save you
al hamdu lillah: By God's grace
enshalla:       If God wills

If I manage to feel comfortable about these I will be happy for now. My main observation about conversations and talks that I have attended so far is that God(Allah) is included as a centrepiece to people's lives here as a natural and normal way of living. The laws of this country are underpinned by the teachings of the Koran, which is God's law. I know that there are some groups of people who have interpreted these laws in a negative and hostile way but I am thinking that we humans tend to interpret things in the way that suits us, to excuse our actions. Around the world we can find many such groups from many sources. I, personally, am always looking for the pure essence of truth teachings I study and I am finding  that love and kindness is this essence, reflected clearly in the true teachings of Islam.
Abu Jahl saw Muhammad and said:
"What an ugly son of a bitch!"
Muhammed replied:
"You're rude, but you're right."
Abu Abkr saw Muhammed and said:
"You're the beautiful shining sun!"
Muhammed said:
"You're right, my friend.
You've seen through."
Someone listening to this asked:
"How can they both be right 
when they are contracting each other?"
Muhammad said:
"I am a mirror polished by Allah.
In me everyone sees themselves."

Rumi

Friday, 18 April 2008

More Musings

Hello again, just spent a week in London with my lovely grandson Otso and his parents. Had to fly through Bahrain as I was travelling on Gulf Air which is a Bahrain based airline. I spent one night there and my short impressions were that it is another lovely place surrounded by water, trying to be like its bigger sister Qatar by developing big hotels around a bay. I am told it is cheaper to holiday there and as we can drive through to there we may take a holiday one day. My time in London reminded me more and more how strong the influence of your cultural environment is when you are growing up somewhere. My grandson speaks with a beautiful British accent (when he is not speaking Finnish) and he walks in Shepherds Wood and watches squirrels run up and down the trees as he learns to use an umbrella, negotiate subways and play with his multi-lingual friends. His favourite music is Caribbean at present, his favourite foods veggie sausage and rye bread. We had a lovely visit as my son Nathan and daughter-in-law Katja prepare for a new baby which Otso insists will be a baby boy whose name could be Poppadom
Now I am home to two new kittens (Jonah's) and my lovely boys who have just spent a week in Thailand at an outdoor education camp. They had a ball. My homecoming wish was to have a Thai massage with my favourite lady and then a Morrocan Chicken Tajine meal at the Souq where we sat in the fading, warm light on the top deck, watching on a huge screen the local soccer teams vie for the cup, Steve smoking his beloved apple Shisha while I devoured a wonderful meal with vegetable couscous and mint tea. Our drive home along the Corniche was our next piece of cultural enlightenment for the week. We noticed straight away a series of vehicles with young Thobe-dressed young men sitting out through the sunroof waving the flags of the winning team and generally celebrating. We wondered why the police had not stopped the first two cars we saw until we realised that this is a standard way of celebrating the winning of favourite teams. It appeared that there was going to be a parade eventually of the winning players and in the meantime we had a whole lot of pretend players perched on roofs and out of windows with their faces disguised by scarves, living the dream of being a champion in a parade for that special moment. We decided to just stroll along the Corniche with many other spectators while the sea sparkled with the reflection of thousands of lights and people sat in the grass with their nightly family picnic.  Life is good here.
As an aside, I would urge you to check out Nathan's website nathanthomson.com, which has his latest CD featured on it. He has just signed a deal with the Naim company to produce and market this CD. We are all very excited.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

My days

For all of my friends out there who are sometimes reading this- I thought I would describe a typical day in my present life so that you can see that I am doing what you all advised and taking it truly easy. Steve and Jonah get up at 5.45 to leave for school at 6.45. I am left here by myself with no car but with lots of lovely ideas. I first go for a walk on the compound with a South African and a Lebanese lady. We cannot walk too far even at this hour because of the heat increasing daily. At present it is getting up to around 38 degrees and will increase to 48 in the next month or two. It is a dry heat at present and quite tolerable. The other day Jonah was playing baseball at midday and there were many expats sitting out in the direct sun with no hats and no sleeves and shorts. I was of course cowering in the shade with my long sleeves and hat and sunscreen on. If I venture to suggest anything about skin cancer I am told that we Australians are unusually paranoid about this subject and vitamin D is important etc etc. So I have learned to say nothing. I digress, when I get home I can watch the daily news from Britain, USA or Aljazzeer - an excellent local news chanel that gives very unbiased news from around the world. I do this while I eat my organic breakfast. Next I check my computer for emails, and get ready for my next adventure. If I want to go downtown I phone my driver and ask a neighbour to join me for a couple of hours in the morning. We have learned that you do not go out at certain times of the day because there is a defenite peak hour time at midday and then again at 4 p.m. In Qatar the work day is usually split into two sessions with a siesta in between.
For those of you who are wondering about my exercise program, you will be truly amazed that I have at last been forced to go to the gym because of the heat and because we have at our disposal a fully equipped gym with a personal trainer if needed. So, four days a week I go and work out by myself in the ladies gym which I am really enjoying. Of course I don't overdo it- not in my nature at all. Two days I go to the pool and do a water aerobics class which is also great fun and feels good for my muscles as well. I have just added a Thai massage to one of my days and will continue to do this weekly as I have found a truly excellent woman who walks up and down my spine for want of a better description. In between all of this activity I am exploring all of the options available to us in Doha. Yesterday we ended up at the La Cigale coffee shop which was a mind-boggling experience. In this brand new hotel -ordered by the Emir because he stayed in one in Lebanon, you can find candies, chocolates, cakes, fresh juices, sushi, sandwiches, quiche etc etc. You simply wander around the huge delicatessen and point to what you want to eat and it is all served to you on delicate platters while you sip the beverage of your choice. Kind of like Lulu's in Mullum with a face lift. Not saying that I prefer this kind of swanky hotel to Lulus and I miss being there often, but it is just an example of life here in the rich lane I guess. When I don't go out I sit here in my air conditioned villa and write or play jazz chords on my ukulele just for the heck of it. Tomorrow I will go to work to help out the admissions team at school for a couple of days so that I can make a little bit of spending money for my visit next week to my family in London. Steve and Jonah are heading off for Thailand to an outdoor adventure camp. I will be sipping tea at Crouch End.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Favourite Places and other musings

My favourite place so far is definitely the Souk Waqif- which is downtown and has been reconstructed by the government to look exactly as it used to years ago. This means that the old buildings have been restored and newer buildings are being demolished to be replaced by the old style. So when you walk down the white-washed streets through the center of this Souq you feel as if you have stepped back through time. The lovely thing about this place is that the local people hang out there all the time. You can see men sitting in quiet places smoking and talking as they would have through time. The women also wander and shop and sit and smoke, many of them in their black diamante spotted abayas. Recently my sister and I dropped in to say goodbye to it as she was leaving the next day. We wandered down the main alleyway and came across a group of musicians (all men) sitting on red cushions in their white thobes in a u shape playing drums and a wonderful stringed instrument that I need to find the name of- like a 12 string guitar with a rounded back. The player of this instrument was an older man who also sang. The main players have a microphone in front of them and I guess there were about 20 men in the band. As we approached we spotted some seats either side of the band. On our side it said 'women' so we plopped ourselves down between some robed ladies whose eyes with heavy makeup peeped out at us. It was truly like I had been transported to some other world as the sun set and the music played on I was again so thrilled to be here. For the musicians in the audience- I was counting a 6 beat bar with the emphasis on the 3/4 beats which were emphasised by clapping or drumbeats. I have learned that music and dance are an integral part of the lifestyle of the people and is important in preserving the cultural heritage. Khaliji music is a form of traditional Bedouin music and I am yet to see the traditional dances called the Ayyalah and Ardah which are age-old martial arts performances danced to drums and tamborines and cymbals. 
Our time at the Souq always starts or ends with a Morrocan Tea at the Morrocan restaurant so we sat on the rooftop sipping wonderful mint tea with too much sugar- but what the heck? It is served by men who pour the tea out of a silver teapot from a great height into a beautiful glass. 
I think my sister fully enjoyed her time here and it is comforting to know that she can now rest easy about where we are.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Dubai visit

My sister is here at present so we decided to travel to Dubai to have a look at this famous city. We took a three day package and set off into an unknown world. On arriving it was quickly apparent that Dubai is much much more busy than Doha and of course much larger. Our taxi was impatient and used his car horn often and the traffic was unimaginable. So our first impressions were not really favourable. Our hotel was adequate ( we had chosen a three star hotel because of the high prices of more elaborate ones) but it was elegant and clean and had several excellent restaurants offering wonderful food. Our breakfast was truly wonderful so this a plus for Dubai. Our first walk downtown was rather scary to say the least. My sister is blond and has a lovely large set of breasts that were ogled at many times on our walk. The town is full full full of Indian, Pakistani, etc men who seem rather awestruck by both the colour of my sister's hair and the size of her top. We both felt very uncomfortable but forged on looking for other tourists so that we no longer stood out quite so much. After trying to find the sea front we realised that we had come out at one of the islands being built in the sea. This of course completely ruined the view of the sea we had been expecting so we turned away and started for the soukh. We finally entered the gold soukh for which Dubai is famous and yes you could buy almost any style of beautiful jewellery there at what seemed to be good prices. However, after our 20th shop where we gazed through the window one more time, we looked at each other and decided that the gold soukh was too crowded, too cluttered, too overwhelming and not at all restful and easy. We tried to find a taxi, were propositioned by a handsome young man who offered to hop in the car with us, and finally made it back to the hotel with tired feet and unhappy thoughts. 'Maybe tomorrow will be better,' we said. The next day we decided to take a tour of the city in a private car so that we could be safe, cool and informed. This was an excellent idea and we had a pleasant morning looking at palaces, houses for the rich and famous, an astounding art gallery and a wonderful museum that showed what Dubai had looked like its early days. It is called the jewel of the Middle East because it is built around a natural river that snakes through the city like a necklace. I loved to see what it used to be like with traders and shipping and tents and palm trees. This of course is replaced by imposing towers in all styles. We spent our last day at some shopping centres - the shopping is quite unbelievable with all famous brand name stores lined up in several shopping centres. The most incredible sight for me was the ski hill with chair lift, snow and ice rinks winding down around a corner into the largest shopping mall of all. But then I missed seeing the wave pool and water park in another part of town. We were so happy to arrive back in little Doha with its peaceful sparkling bay and even our traffic here seemed nothing compared to there. I will not go again.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Fun times in Doha

My neighbour and I often venture out in the mornings in our taxi to explore Doha a bit more. Yesterday she decided we should sign up for a culture and conversation class. We set off early in the morning but not early enough as we arrived 10 minutes late to the Islamic Culture Centre downtown. We confidently walked through a glass door into a foyer with no signs, found our way up some stairs, noticed a pile of men's shoes outside a prayer room and kept going until we found ourselves outside again. We then tried another entrance and were politely told that we should go out again to find the woman's entrance. We had apparently been in some forbidden territory but thankfully Qatari people are quite patient and understanding in these little slip ups of foreigners! 
Finally we make our way up to the third floor of the ladies section and find a little office where we sign in for the class. We are now half an hour late so we are quickly ushered into the classroom where a woman is teaching from a white board and several young women are attentively listening. We gingerly sit down wondering what we have go ourselves Arabic alphabet- in a mixture of English and Arabic. It seems that the class is up to the second letter, so the teacher quickly reviews the first letter for us. 'Beh' is said several different ways and we are asked to repeat it loudly - bee, beh, boo, beeeee, bhuu. Anita and I are both quite puzzled about the culture part of this class, but we bravely join in with our tentative Australian/British accents and soon find there is no escaping from the glare of the enthusiastic teacher who has us shouting,'bakara, bakara, bakara (cow) in no time! Not only are we learning to speak, but it soon is clear that we are going to learn to write this language as well. 'But we only signed up for conversational Arabic,' we murmur to each other. There is simply no time for talking as we rush onto 'Feh'. As I am shouting 'Foll foll' , trying not to look at Anita for fear of cracking, I decide that I am not coming back to this culture class, it is not quite what I had in mind.
We both stagger out of there politely saying thank you and goodbye, there is a long moment where neither of us say a thing. Finally, over our cup of Moroccan mint tea,  Anita pipes up ," I did not enjoy that class  a bit," she says. "I only wanted tea and conversation," say I and we both start to laugh heartily. 
It appears that we have been ushered into the completely wrong class after all. The one we wanted will start in May and we are both really looking forward to it. I am not at all criticising the intent or purpose of the language class and will perhaps follow up the culture class with it so that I am more in touch with this language. For now I just want to understand more about the people and patterns of life here. I want to join the ceremonies and customs and perhaps meet some more local people in doing so. 

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Driving in Doha

This is a topic that will be very hard to actually describe. I need to start by talking about maps of Doha, or perhaps I need to talk about road signs? The map that Steve has is rather inaccurate. There are roads marked on it that are under repair or not yet built and there are roads out there that are not on any map yet. There are lovely signs pointing to places like the airport, but when you take that exit you find that it is a 'future' way to the airport and at present is- you guessed it- under construction. This leaves you with the old tried and true routes, except when suddenly a road block goes up to say that this 'road is closed' at present. The other interesting factor in the mix is that there is a roundabout on every important junction, which is fine except that no-one has ever taught anyone how to use one. So you have the situation of entering a roundabout, being hemmed in or crossed over by someone who is determined to move from the centre to the outside of the roundabout to turn right NOW. This is very disconcerting and lends itself to many sharp intakes of breath and some prayers. I spoke to a man the other day who said he just shuts his eyes and hopes for the best as he hurtles through the roundabout! The odd thing is that there seem to be few roundabout accidents. The other very curious thing is that all the roundabouts have a name know only to local people. My favourite is the Cholestrol Roundabout- where you can find any fast food restaurant you might want as well as many popular restaurants.  The main accidents I have seen are spectacular ones, stemming from the fact that young Qatari men seem to love to test out their Land Rovers/Lamborghinis/ Lexus cars on any stretch of road that appears in front of them. Just now on my way home in a taxi we came across a group of young men in their Thaubes? (not sure of spelling) (long gown worn by men) trying to right a brand new gold Land Rover with a rope tied to another car. The whole car was suitably written off, the driver a bit dusty but fine and my driver told me that they would not inform the police, simply tow it into an obliging garage and have them fill out some paperwork so that the insurance would pay up , the young man get his new car and all would be well. I have started to drive but only on the quiet times of day and only in our local area. I love to leave the downtown negotiations to my Sri Lankan driver Zameer, who takes me anywhere for $12. It seems that there are too many cars on the roads, too many road works, too many inconsiderate/impatient drivers and not enough monitoring of the situation. I think this is about to change as I see cameras going up and traffic lights on some busy roundabouts (an interesting concept). Steve loves driving here of course and just joins into the fun with the rest of them. 

Monday, 3 March 2008

Women of Doha

When I was coming here I was asked several times whether I would be able to drive, would I have to wear a 'mask', was I allowed in public etc. I only knew that it was just fine for me to drive (although having been here in the roundabout traffic I am not that keen to start), and that I didn't have to wear a chador. Although now that I am here I am wishing I did have to wear one- isn't that a trip? The women here of course have a choice, although I assume that some husbands might require their wives to be covered when in public. I am not sure about this until I ask some! However, the black robes they wear here are so beautiful and mysterious and elegant and intriguing that I am seeing another side of this question. It is amazing to look into a beautiful face with no other distractions to the person you are meeting through the eyes and mouth only. In most cases the face is showing, although in the shops you are likely to see the face simply covered over entirely for complete anonymity. Then there is the sparkle of diamantes on the scarf and the sleeve tips, the occasional peep of designer jeans as they walk, the elegant high-heeled shoes peeping from beneath the hem and always the trailing smell of perfume as they pass. I often find myself smiling at these beautiful people, and they always smile back in a kind of sisterhood connection. 
In Doha itself I am finding that there are wonderful places for women only to be. At the gym we have our own private space where no men venture, at the doctor there is a separate lounge for us (if you care to be private), in the hairdresser it is women only and in any cafe you can choose to go into the private section with only women. I am going to take advantage of these calm places. 

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Ukuleles in Doha

Having sat at home for four weeks, being what my friend calls a 'Doha Darling' while we scoot downtown to shop or to walk the Corniche (harbour-front walk) or to simply take breakfast at the Ramada Hotel, it is time to do some sort of work I feel. So I have decided to introduce Doha to ukuleles, starting with a children's group from the school since they are looking for private music teachers at present. Having mentioned this I recieved some enthusiastic response and trotted downtown to the two music shops there. Neither of them sell ukuleles unfortunately and were not sure what they were even. I guess a ukulele is not a Middle Eastern instrument after all. I have since managed to persuade people who were off overseas for workshops to buy a few for me and lo and behold I have 6 new ukuleles in town as we speak. Tomorrow I will go to school and advertise myself and see what happens. I am also intending to start a ukulele collective for adults at home here perhaps once a month. There is nothing like singing together for a couple of hours and plunking away at the easiest instrument in the world. Watch this post for further development! 

Life in Doha cntd

I have not written for a while as we continue to roller coaster our way through being here. Jonah has decided that he doesn't like it at all even though he has been picked to go to Cairo for the track and field event next month and is going on an outdoor ed. trip to Thailand in a couple of weeks with his dad and some other members of the school. Even though he is being coached by one of the best tennis coaches around. Even though he has made some wonderful friends who invite him over for the night and who he loves. We are convinced that he is feeling guilty about making new friends and is confused about leaving his old friends behind- he worries that he might lose them all of course. So one evening he is staying at a beautiful mansion with his new Lebanese/Jordanian friends and the next he is shut up in his dark bedroom on the computer talking to his Australian friends being antisocial. They say living with a teenager is full of challenges and highs and lows. We will ride it out with him, knowing that there are some wonderful things for him to gain from this experience.
As I venture out into the society here I am learning about its multi-level nature. On the top of the pile are the very very rich Qatari people who are using their wealth to enrich their lives in a very positive way. They want to improve Qatar to ensure a strong future. In order to do this there are many, many workers here from many countries. Prominent seem to be Phillipines, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. We are meeting these lovely people in the guise of taxi drivers, builders, labourers, hairdressers, waiters, physiotherapists, nurses etc. They tell us that they sign a two year contract to come and work here for what does not seem a lot of money to us. They are accommodated in rather basic accommodation and even leave their children and spouse behind in order to send them money for education and such. Our Nepalese waiter told us that 1 QR is equal to 70 Rupi so he is happy to send money home to his mother and sister. Wherever you go you find a team of these people- the road workers are forever digging things up by hand to tile, pour foundations, etc. It is never-ending and I wonder how each day must feel to them with this endless toiling from dawn to dusk. And yet they are always smiling when you catch their eye. It feels as if this land of opportunity is benefitting all in some way. At least I hope so.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Another week in Doha

It seems like a lifetime since we drove out to the beach. Life is becoming more and more busy here. We were invited to a lecture this week entitled "Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think" given by Dr John Esposito who is the director of the Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University. This event was sponsored by the Center for International and Regional Studies, Georgetown University school of Foreign Service here in Qatar. The lecture and a reception following was held at the lovely Diplomatic Club in Doha, a very beautiful venue! Dr Esposito proved to be a humorous, thoughtful, knowledgeable presenter who is a leading expert on the Muslim world. He is also the co-author of a wonderful book on this subject and has very clearly presented insights into the thinking and attitudes of a large part of the Muslim population. Deepak Chopra praises this book by saying: "As our world spirals out of control with greater violence and misunderstanding between the West and the Muslim world, this book cuts through the conflicting rhetoric of politicians and pundits and presents the often-silenced voice of Muslims everywhere. I cannot imagine a more important or more badly needed intervention." 
As I read the book myself I am finding that for me it de-mystifies the  religion of Islam and makes me admire even more the Muslim people who are so devoted to it. They have a strong commitment to God and a goal to attain peace through God's will. I understand more and more the importance of prayer in their lives and love to see them take time out of their busy lives to simply pray. 
Next week I will attend a workshop entitled 'Global Media Between Dialogue and War'. I am so looking forward to it! (it is also free!)

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Doha contd

During the past few days we have had to visit our local hospital for some further tests to finalise our paperwork. We were sent to a new hospital on a new road nearby. The first thing we saw at the doorway to this large building were a couple of bellhops with golden trolleys, apparently there to collect luggage for patients. We entered the building to be greeted with a large waterfall in the centre of an even larger foyer. We looked up into the atrium to see the windows of the guest suites draped with plants and beautiful curtains. This was like no other hospital we had ever been in! At the entrance to the pathology unit was a fully uniformed man waiting to greet us and inside there was no waiting for service. We enquired about finding a specialist for later and were assured that we just needed to make an appointment whenever suited us. I will go back tomorrow to see a surgeon who will give me a referral to my next specialist and so it goes. This city is still amazing us. 
On the weekend we drove south to a beach to take a look outside of Doha. The road there was across a landscape like no other. Sand, dust, oil stacks burning into the air, more dust, fast cars and roadworks. Oh, and yes, a camel or two wandering around. 
We passed through an industrial town built we were guessing for oil exploration. It seemed very remote and very bleak to us, with more brand new purpose-built concrete buildings to house more workers. We finally arrived at the only beach resort in this part of Qatar(there are not many). As we neared the beaches there, we could see many, many little patches of businesses set up in the sand renting fourwheelers for people to ride off onto the sand dunes and out of sight! We saw many 4 wheel drive cars doing the same thing and wondered how safe it was out there with people zipping all over the place with no safety measures in sight. 
So my day was spent swimming in the cold Arabian Gulf, riding a camel along a busy beach, listening to the roar of motors riding the sand dunes and finally sipping tea around the pool of a rather luxurious but busy beach resort with the usual palm trees and grass. Perhaps we will go there again but I suspect not too often, unless it is early morning before all the noise begins. 

Friday, 15 February 2008

Doha contd

In the past week I have had to be xrayed ( in a crumpled gown), finger printed and had a very brutal blood test which left me with a swollen arm. This was all done by government agencies here in order for me to be able to live and work in this country. In each case I was in waiting rooms with groups of women from all over the world. It seems that we have joined a team of people from everywhere- drawn here for the working opportunities from maids to business executives. It is still amazing to me to be amongst this crowd! The population of Qatar I find is made up of 20% Qatari people and 80% other nationalities - which makes for an interesting phenomenon. Qatari people born here are fully protected by their government and I believe are paid an income from the day they are born. This means that there are some very wealthy Qatari families here and explains why there are so many ritzy cars around! I also find out that the population has grown rapidly in the past year even- from 800,000 last year to over a million this year. I do hope that the roads and all the infrastructures keep up. 
As soon as the government has approved of me being here I will be issued with a resident card, my health care card and I can apply for my licence. I am not at all sure about driving here though- at busy times it is very hairy with everyone making their own way through roundabouts and with roadworks causing sudden closures of roads you thought were there, and new roads appearing suddenly that are not on any maps. I have worked out that I can book a taxi if I call the day before and make a time. This might be my surest way of getting to where I need to go in the meantime.

Doha contd

Yesterday we attended an orientation about the Qatar Foundation of which we are a small part. It soon becomes obvious that the vision for Qatar in general is huge and almost beyond belief. We see plans for the largest equestrian centre being built nearby, more universities including a teaching medical college, a leadership college which looks like a series of space ships nestled in the sand and a convention centre which resembles the branches of a giant tree. We hear about the underground part of this city with its own service roads so that rubbish trucks can stay out of sight and to allow movement. We meet people from countries we have hardly heard of, as well as a woman born in the next town to mine in New Zealand. One group is here to design the most up to date hospital in the world - to be opened in 2011. How exciting to be given the opportunity to bring to life all of the excellent practices of the world in one spot! I don't know whether to laugh at the pure decadence of it all or to cry about the amount of concrete being poured into the desert- instead I just shake my head in wonder and decide that this experience, while being completely opposite to our African one, will in itself contribute to our lives in many rich ways.

Doha contd

After our overload of shopping centres we drive downtown to my very favourite place so far. We park in a cobbled parking place next to an old building made with stones and uneven tree branches. The place is just opening and we wander into a Moroccan Restaurant while we wait for the Soukh to come to life. Here you can sit on the pavement sucking a pipe bubbling through water called a 'shisha'? It seems that both men and women do this. We instead choose to drink Morroccan tea (mint and honey) and eat eggplant and lentils. Then the fun begins. We wander down small alleyways to find everything from bedding to material to shoes and bicycles. Then the smells of the spice section beckon me and I simply drool over the selection of nuts, figs, dates, spices, herbs and teas. I know that I will return to this place again and again. This time I buy conservatively and carry home my little treasures to fill my new jars with and to simply gaze at in awe for the next few days. I am absolutely going to love living here despite the shopping centres! 

Doha Day Three contd

Today we are taken to two other shopping centres- my 14 year old son still needs convincing. The first one is, from the outside, rather old and tatty looking, yet it has been newly constructed and purposefully built to look like this. As we enter I am greeted with a painted cloudy sky, a curving avenue of 'old' buildings with new shops on the lower level, standing lamps to light our way and a gondola floating past along the canal that seems to run through the centre of this carefully created 'other' world. As we wander on we come across a large skating rink where Canadian children are hurtling around doing what they have always done, except they are not in cold Canada at all. Here are the usual mixture of expats, Qatari families in robes and modern young people. Because the weather is unseasonably cold I buy a modern track suit top for 100 QR- only $32 or thereabouts.  We drive on to our second shopping centre to find a Marks and Spencer store within- so now I am convinced that Qatar is going to be an easy stay for us. Not that we are shopping centre people but compared to our stay in Africa where we had to shop at the local 'duka' made from shipping crates, this seems all too easy. (even our son seems impressed!)

Doha Day Three

This morning after being woken with the distant call to prayer, I found a neighbour who agreed to take a walk with me around the outside of our compound. We are living in a suburb called Education City. It is presently under construction (the operative word for Doha at present) with the goal of finally developing the largest Education facility in the world. It is currently home to five elite US educational institutions and is still expanding. We are working for one of these institutions and live on part of the 2,500 acre site in an elegant, brand new apartment built for staff of the Qatar Foundation. So off we set on a rather windy but very chilly morning. As we walked along, sometimes on rubble and sometimes on brand new concrete sidewalks, it is quickly obvious that the old had been very brutally pushed aside to make way for the new. There is still a tent flapping in the sand, right next to the gate of what I could only describe as a mansion, newly constructed. On further inspection this is actually a compound with two mansions inside, I am guessing for a wife (the smaller house) and her husband (the huge house). My attention is more drawn to the tent and the nearby fenced yard holding onto the last spaces before more concrete invades this world. We walk over to the dusty enclosure to find camels of all ages within. There is a mother with her newborn baby whose eyes are not yet open. The mother looks as proud as any new mother and is nestled next to her beautiful baby. She seems to listen to our attempts at camel conversation and we leave her alone to enjoy her momentary inaction. 

Doha Day Two

Doha used to be a small town with many of its inhabitants living in tent communities around the outside. It sits on a bay with a skyline of birds, inhabited by the proud Qatari people who are rapidly adjusting to some startling changes in their world. Presently there are more cranes and building sites than you could count and elegant, tall buildings emerging out of someone's imagination joining the birds in the skyline.
For our first visit to downtown I had carefully dressed in a flowing cover-all outfit with my new ugly closed-in shoes. The guide book had mentioned that this would be the appropriate dress for women downtown. My first sight was of a beautiful young girl in very tight jeans trying on an exquisite pair of very high silver strappy shoes which she proceeded to strut down the mall in. My shoes had now gone from ugly to throw-away! If you sit for a while this will be your vista- the high-stepping booted women beautifully groomed and heavily made up, next to a black-covered woman whose face is not visible at all. Each will be brandishing credit cards and mobile phones as they shop in the latest branch of Esprit, Monsoon, Krispy Kreme Donuts- you can't imagine that you are here in the 'dreaded' Middle East (my friends' interpretation). They would physically cringe at the thought of you coming to this truly uninviting place- only goes to prove once more that those who have not been here should not cast stones!

Doha day one.

On our first morning in Doha while we were trying to adjust to our many time changes and lingering effects of jet lag, my husband took us to one of the downtown shopping malls. While we sat and stared out of the car window at the pictures all around us it was apparent that we had both got it all wrong! In the mind of our 14 year old we had lovingly forced him to leave all of his friends in Australia, side-step his grandparents in the USA to live in a boring desert town with camels and rules. Now we were both seeing that we had instead come to a land of stark contrasts and intrigue.

Thursday, 14 February 2008