Over a month ago, I had the opportunity to visit Doha, Qatar for a week. Due to the chaos of life, I’ve struggled to find the time necessary (and deserved) to plop down and write about the experience. The adventure was easily one of those once-in-a-lifetime trips. I don’t like saying that since I hope to have many more similar experiences, but it is not every week you venture to the Middle East, especially in 2016.
The trip wasn’t my typical grab-a-bag-and-hop-on-a-plane escapade. I went with a group of students and advisers from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) where I attend grad school. Consequently, the trip was framed as a learning and leadership experience, which I appreciated, and also shaped some of my perspective.
Almost every night of our week there, our group congregated in our hotel (which was situated in the souqs, or an open-air marketplace) and reflected on the day. We talked a lot about what we could bring back to the States and share with our friends and peers. Of course, the food was awesome (we tried Lebanese, Egyptian, Qatari, and Indian dishes among others); everything is gorgeous (!!), and holy cow, it is so hot. Those things aside, not many people will seek or have the opportunity to visit the Middle East anytime soon, and in this increasingly globalized world, it’s important to emphasize our interconnectedness and resist recent spikes of Islamophobia here at home.
I did not go to Doha with a lot of expectations. I just wanted to experience Qatar. Of course, I’m sure I had some subconscious expectations instilled by American culture and media, and those are important things to emphasize.
Many people thought I was absolutely nuts to go: “That’s awesome you were accepted to this program, but you’re not actually going?” “Aren’t you afraid you might die?” And, after I returned, at Thanksgiving dinner, being told by several family members that they weren’t just afraid; they thought I would die.
While I might be a bit more travel-crazed than some and joke I would rather die abroad than at home, I never went to Doha to shorten my life. This was the third year of my program. Most people (read: almost everyone) go to the Middle East and don’t die (and aren’t kidnapped and ransomed, mugged, etc.). And, if there was danger, VCU wasn’t going to let us go: VCU’s PR team was probably more concerned for my safety than I was.
But these stereotypes are exactly why I felt it was important to go: how can we ever relate to one another if we’re too afraid to venture outside what is familiar?
Also, in this international war against ISIS/the Islamic State/Daesh (all the same thing), Qatar is not the forefront of the battle. In fact, Europe might be more dangerous than Qatar. (And not to spout off presidential quotes, but we cannot live in fear. That is no life to live.) Qatar is, in fact, “neutral” to the war—or likes to play their cards close to the heart. Qatar houses two U.S. military bases (to the chagrin of other Gulf Coast countries), but has also been linked to (maybe) providing financial support to ISIS. *sips tea*
All this stuff, and more, I learned in a crash course before leaving for my trip and also once there. To be brutally authentic, I had never heard of Qatar until a year and a half ago when I first heard about this program. I’m just the ignorant American (what’s new?).
Qatar is a peninsula nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia (map here) and is considered the richest country in the world, largely due to its exportation of oil. Before this, however, it was an impoverished settlement whose income came from fishing and pearls—until the Japanese started synthetically creating pearls. In the ‘30s, Qataris specialized as pearl divers: masses of men would hop on boats called dhows and depart for six months to dive 30m underwater to collect oysters hoping they contained pearls. Mind you, they did not have sophisticated scuba diving gear: they plunged into the sea with pants (maybe?) and bared eyes (no goggles!). They put anchors on their feet so they would descend faster. Sharks, storms, and other perils overshadowed the journey. The survival rate was somewhere around 25%. And if you survived, then you just did it again the next year.
Fast forward two decades: the British discovered oil, facilitated operations with Qataris’ expertise, and in 1971, Qatar became a sovereign state ruled by an emir (their version of a king). This is a country that (quite literally) came from nothing and now has (almost) everything. I was surprised at how first world Qatar is - Doha is arguably more technologically and architecturally advanced than many big American cities. And where it hasn't caught up yet, it's about to, as the eve of the 2022 World Cup approaches.
In the late ‘90s, Qatar recognized that oil is finite and the world is changing. They began to invest in education for their future. That is where VCU and our program enters the picture. One of the emir’s wives at the time (his son is the current emir) opened Education City in Doha. She invited six American universities to open schools on the campus. VCU was the first to arrive offering a comprehensive arts program, alongside Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M (engineering), Carnegie Mellon (business and computer science), Georgetown (foreign service), and Northwestern (journalism and communications). Our program was an exchange program with VCU’s Qatar campus: we visited for a week, but their students also visited VCU’s Richmond campus the month before.
Geographically, Doha is the only “big city” in Qatar. Qatar itself only takes two hours to drive across (I’m told). If you’re not in Doha, then you’re in the desert. And, practically speaking, you’re still in the desert when you’re in Doha. The only greenery around you in the city are small grass plots and sidras, a tree native to the region and common in the courtyard of residential compounds. It’s 90 degrees by 10 am. The funny thing is, we visited in October during the “cool season.”
“You’re coming when the temperatures are perfect,” one local told us.
I guess 90 degrees is preferable to 120 in summer.
Doha itself is quite expansive. The city center is manageable, but the city edges are suburban sprawl. Daily, we sped down highways for 30 minutes to get from the souqs where we stayed to Education City. Qatar is notorious for its aggressive driving. Most people drive fancy cars – Ferraris and Lamborghinis speed by without notice after a day – but they don’t seem too concerned about risking collision. After all, if you are Qatari, odds are, you are filthy rich.
Qatar has close to 2.5 million people living there. Only 250 thousand are actually Qataris. The rest are expats from India, Pakistan, other Gulf Coast countries, Europe, and America. Most expats live nowhere near the luxury of a local Qatari. I was surprised at what an international hub Qatar is.
Qatar is trying to become even more international. It wants to be a world leader. Their previous emir set up a vision for 2030 that intertwines goals in healthcare, technology, and the arts alongside education and the economy. Everywhere we visited, this vision was mentioned. It’s an intentional process.
Someone from our group asked, “Why doesn’t America have this? If we’re supposedly the best in the world.”
But it’s the price of democracy. No vision could be set that would remain in a system that reelects a leader every four years and has two competing legislative factions.
That wasn’t a barb toward democracy, though: Qatar is a constitutional monarchy. Its official religion is Sunni Islam. I read an essay recently (after returning) that called the nation a “theocratic dictatorship.” I see this as two sides of the same coin. While Islam is the primary (and official) religion, other religions are accepted. There are even churches built somewhere in Doha (I didn’t see them).
My personal safety never felt compromised in Qatar. No one shouted at us because we were Americans. Pickpocketing isn’t a thing. (Since we stayed in the souqs, I was surprised that at night, when the vendors closed up, they don’t lock up their merchandise. I could easily walk by and carry away any trinket I wanted – but no one does.)
But there are also no protests. Political parties and trade unions do not, and cannot, exist.
The country tries to keep its citizens happy. Education is free or inexpensive. Utilities are covered. Qataris (versus expats) are favored for jobs.
Islam does shape the country’s laws. Alcohol is not sold except in Western hotels. It’s illegal to be drunk. (A few locals told me there are nightclubs and the government often looks the other way, but who am I to test that soda water?) People are encouraged to dress modestly: no short skirts, leggings, or sleeveless garments for women. No tank tops for men. As a male, I wore shorts most days (it is 90 degrees), but longer pants are required for visiting mosques and other entities, such as the Museum of Islamic Art.
Most women in the country wear abayas, and men wear thobes. This is as much cultural as it is religious. One evening, our group went out, and the women dressed modestly – long skirts or jeans, non-clingy shirts – and you could see the eyes on them. Local women told us, while they don’t have to wear an abaya, they do so because they feel more comfortable covered. (They also can wear pajamas under the abaya, and no one would know the difference.) An American woman in our group compared it to being catcalled in the States, but here it’s just staring. Encounters are easily oversexualized when the genders are separated so frequently.
Juxtaposed against all that is the hospitality and warmth everyone showed us. Qataris want you to feel welcomed. They serve you karak (sort of like chai tea) every time you enter their home or an intimate place. The people want to share their culture with you. They are just as curious about our views and our world as we are about theirs.
I’ve found it difficult to reduce all my thoughts, memories, and observations to a tangible, easily digestible takeaway. Weeks removed, the experience feels like a dream. I scroll through my Instagrams and recall the wonder, excitement, and magic of being around new architecture, new skylines, and many firsts, among them first time in a desert, first time riding a camel, and first time being on a plane for 14 hours (okay, that first is neglible).
I try not to judge my experience automatically from an American perspective. It’s too easy to compare Qatar to America, but forget that this is a nation that is less than 50 years old. America also does not have the same intersection of culture, religion, and government, for better or for worse. This is a growing country trying to maintain its cultural identity and, simultaneously, assert its place on the international landscape.
If this whole post wasn’t evident enough, I’m ultimately left with more reflections than conclusions.