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.