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.