Ten weeks ago today, I woke at Kripalu.

I awoke this morning awash in memories of the Shadowbrook Room. I thought briefly to get up, to make coffee, to begin my day, but the memories pinned me in place, their gentle but inexorable force flowing through me. (Tadasana, Ardha Chandrasana, Utkatasana…) They settled onto me and into me with a soft press, rising from my heart to take full shape in my head and with a sigh I allowed them to flood through me.

Here we are in early morning sadhana, (…Garudasana, Virabhadrasana…) the air cool and the world dimly lit. There is the comfort of having you in front of me, of knowing that you are beside me, and of feeling the peace of being amidst all of you, a strong and loving core of people whose inhales and exhales rise and fall with mine, a symphony of breath as we move through the familiar sequence. (…Parshva Virabhadrasana, Prasarita Padottonasana, Trikonasana…) Now it is late at night, before a practice teach: the lights are low and there is the murmur of Sanskrit as small pockets of us practice in pairs or alone, finding our voices, landing ever more securely in the awareness that these words (…Vrksasana, Urdvha Navasana…) and these movements (…Setu Bhandasana…) are part of us now. Then it’s bright daylight, the air sticky and humid; a languor steals through me as we settle, post-sign-in, for the session ahead. Another day: we are practicing with one of our ever-changing partners, teaching earnestly and learning, constantly learning (…Ardha Sarvangasana, Supta Matsyendrasana, Bhujangasana, Navasana, Garbhasana…), from the one who teaches us.

Each memory (…Yoga Mudra , Adho Mukha Shvanasana…) and its accompanying vision rises in me with astonishing clarity and does not fade so much as gracefully recede, allowing the next to emerge. Our Immersion, when the Shadowbrook Room was lovingly arranged to be as sattvic as possible. Afternoon themed sadhanas: flowing through vinyasa (…Kapotasana…); finding and feeling muscles in anatomy and physiology; feeling sated and soporific after restorative yoga or yoga nidra. (…Janu Shirshasana…) Graduation: rose petals and lights and love all around, sandalwood and certificates and treasured words. (…Paschimottanasana, Matsyendrasana…)

When the flow of memories finally begins to ebb, I lay quietly for a bit and then consciously conjure a mental snapshot of the Shadowbrook Room as I saw it early on Saturdays during our time at Kripalu: empty, clear, silent but with our sangha’s intentions—the ones we wrote on colored shapes our first night—serenely holding our space until we could rejoin together there. (…Shavasana.) And begin again.

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Basic Black as a Wardrobe Staple

July, 2010; mid-afternoon. I pull into a parking spot at Villaggio Shopping Mall in Doha and sit for a minute with the engine—and air conditioning—running. I am wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt, Bermuda length shorts, and flip-flops. The digital display in the car that tells external temperature reads 114F. As I psych myself up for the blast of heat and white light that will hit me like a wall when I open the door, I catch sight of a woman moving slowly toward the mall entrance. She is completely covered in unrelieved black: she wears a voluminous robe that falls to her ankles and has long sleeves; a scarf wrapped around her head completely covers her hair, neck and face; as she passes closer to me, I see that she is also wearing black gloves. She has sandals on her feet—I see them peek out from beneath the hem of the robe as she walks—but her feet are covered black stockings.

I marvel that she can make it from her car to the shopping mall without passing out from the heat.

One of the things that intrigued me most during my time in Doha was how Muslim women dress (well, the men, too, but to a lesser degree.) I knew Muslim women covered themselves modestly in public but I didn’t really know why, nor did I know the correct names for the individual pieces of garb. (The garments are called slightly different things in different parts of the Middle East—for instance, I never heard anyone in Qatar call women’s garb a burqa, but I know the word is used in other countries.) I’d also heard lots of conflicting information about the practice—that it was required by law in some places; it was prevented by law in others; that it was a matter of choice; that it was a form of oppression; that its base was religious—no, it was cultural. As it turns out, the answers to these questions vary from country to country, too, but while in Qatar I was eager to find them out about that one in particular. In addition to being just plain curious about the actual clothing, I also really wanted a frame of reference for a practice where external conditions so completely dictate something that is such a personal expression of one’s self.

While some of the questions I had were easy enough to find answers to (the names of the individual pieces, for example) others were a bit trickier. They could really only be answered by the women who dress that way and though I’m not remotely shy, even I balked at the idea of approaching veiled women who were shopping for groceries in Carrefour, introducing myself and firing away with the personal questions.

The long, loosely fitting black robe is called an abaya. The middle syllable is emphasized slightly, and it rhymes with ‘sky’. The long scarf-like article that is worn to completely cover the hair and neck is called a shaila. Because written Arabic doesn’t use vowels and because pronunciation of a particular word can vary slightly among Arabic countries, you often see slightly different spellings of a word when it is Romanized; I have also seen this word printed as ‘shelah’, ‘sheila’, or ‘shela’. Some women wrap and drape it so that in addition to covering the neck and hair, the end of the garment falls to completely cover their face; some wear a larger veiling garment that slips over the head and falls either to the shoulders or the waist. These pieces are sheer enough that the wearer can see through the fabric, but their face can’t be seen by anyone looking at them. There is also a type of face veil that exposes only the eyes, called a naqib. Most of these are fashioned of black fabric of some sort, but I’ve seen a few women—mostly older ones—wearing naqibs of thin leather or metal. All of this garb is strictly for modesty in public and is worn over street clothes that are similar to those you’d see in other parts of the world. (A woman’s ankles and feet are often visible beneath the hem of the abaya as she walks, and I saw women wearing everything from wind pants and sneakers to stockings and low-heeled pumps to spike-heeled sandals and skintight jeans.)

Men dress modestly, too: they wear an ankle length loose white robe called a thobe which has a collar and cuffs like a traditional men’s dress shirt; loose fitting white trousers are worn beneath. On the head they wear a white, close fitting cap, usually crocheted, called a taqiyah; atop that is the ghutra (a white or red-and-white checked scarf) which is held in place with a thick black cord of tightly woven goat hair and wool called an igal.

One of the biggest surprises to me was what the women’s garments really look like. Never having seen them up close, I’d imagined them to be heavy, shapeless things, devoid of adornment or style of any kind and, wow, was I wrong about that. Though the abayas the Qatari women wear are all fashioned of black fabric, a lot of that black fabric is pretty gorgeous stuff: many are made of silk, but there are also lightweight fabrics like chiffon and crepe de chine (for summer) and heavier ones such as velvet or wool (for winter). They are gorgeously cut and constructed with pleats or pintucks that give style and gentle shaping to the garment while still allowing it to fit loosely, and the sleeves are always long but cut in many different ways (full and flowing, pleated, tucked, ending in pretty cuffs, more closely fitted, etc.). I saw some completely black abayas, but even so they weren’t plain–they were embellished in some fashion (black embroidery or jet beading), and the vast majority of abayas are not completely black. Mostly the decoration is on the sleeves or cuffs, but it’s sometimes also at the neck or down the front along the closure edge. I saw intricate embroidery, spectacular laces, crystals and beads set in pretty patterns, and bands of velvet or satin, all in every color imaginable. Often the shaila matches the abaya, the same ornamentation running along the short edges. The variety is endless, and while there are plenty of abayas available off the rack in sensible fabrics at quite reasonable prices, the fancier ones are cut and made to order by a tailor and can run into the thousands of riyals. (Translation? There are abayas that will set you back five or six hundred dollars—or more. All that exquisite detail is not cheap.)

So, yes. It was easy enough to find information about what women wore and I took plenty of photos of what they look like (store keepers were amused but gracious about my request to photograph their displays), but I still wanted to know why they wore it. Fortunately for the sake of my curiosity, Jerry offered to see if one of the Qatari women at his place of employment would talk to me, and she graciously agreed. We made a date to meet at Starbucks at the Landmark Mall; I asked Jerry how I’d know her and he reminded me that I’d met her on my first visit the year before. “You’ll remember her when you see her.”

Right.

I hang around the busy area in front of Starbucks, slanting sideways glances at the many abaya’d women around, trying to decide if any of them look as though they’re waiting for someone. My phone buzzes, letting me know I have a text, and I pull it out of my pocket. It’s a message from Jerry’s colleague: she’s running late by about fifteen minutes because she’d misread the prayer schedule when she made our date. No worries, I text back, I’m in no rush. I browse around a bit and then make my way back to Starbucks, settling on a bench near the entrance. My phone buzzes again, and I read that she’s approaching the coffee shop. I text back saying I’m there, and then, thinking clarity might be a good thing, start another text to say I’m wearing black jeans and a flowered sweater. Before I can finish it, a woman wearing Muslim dress and aviator sunglasses pauses in front of me. “Cheryl?” I nod and she smiles. “I wasn’t sure I remembered what you looked like, but when I saw a Western woman sending a text, I thought it must be you.” I gesture vaguely with the phone and tell her that in my text I had been describing my clothing so that she could find me; she pulls off her sunglasses and we share a smile at the fact that this strategy works better for me than it would be for her.

A few minutes later we are settled at a small table with coffee. I thank her for agreeing to talk with me and she assures me that she is happy to answer any questions I might ask. “Okay,” I say, “then for openers…” But every question I have wants to push itself forward first, and I don’t know which to pick.

She grins at me. “Why is everything black?”

I laugh. “Sure. That’s a great place to start.”

Sometimes, the easiest and most logical answer is correct one: the women’s clothing is black largely because it’s practical. Way back when, there weren’t a whole lot of different color choices because the ways of dyeing fabric were limited. As has historically been true in every—or nearly every—culture, Qatari women were the homemakers and family caregivers; as such, they needed something that didn’t necessitate washing every day (no time for that!) and thus wouldn’t show dirt. Red and red-brown as possibilities were nixed because the source of those colors was henna, which was reserved—and is still used—for the decorative patterns women paint onto their skin for special occasions like weddings; green was out because that was the color Qatari brides wore. That left black, and it just never changed.

Women wearing black is certainly not unique to Qataris or to Muslims: the fashion industry has made billions of dollars convincing women worldwide that black clothing is an essential part of any wardrobe. While I don’t wear black every day, I do wear it a whole lot. I own a pair of jeans, two pair of dress trousers, two skirts, two dresses, a jacket, and a host of sweaters, tops and shoes, all in ‘basic black.’ It is practical, and I like it for just that reason.

Another thing I wondered about was whether the manner of dress was a cultural or a religious thing, or a bit of both; when I asked, the answer came immediately: it is entirely religious. All Muslims follow the practice of hijab, and all Qatari are Muslim. (The word hijab is sometimes used to refer to the headscarf worn by Muslim women, but it also means the modest manner of dress worn by adults of both genders.) Islamic children dress much the way American children do until they reach puberty (SpongeBob Squarepants and Hannah Montana are popular figures on t-shirts for small fry), at which point they are technically of marriageable age. At puberty they must adopt hijab, but it is not uncommon for them to wear some of the traditional garments before then. I often saw girls who looked to be eight or nine years old in an abaya but with their hair partially or completely visible, and sometimes very young boys wore thobes (but not the ghutra). One day in the grocery store I saw a Qatari man pushing a half-filled cart; trailing along behind him pushing one of the child-size carts with careful concentration was a lad not older than five togged out in a thobe, a taqiyah, and the same slide style sandals as his dad; he was completely adorable.

The purpose of hijab is to cover the intimate parts of the body, or ‘awrah’; according to the Qur’an these parts of the body must always be covered for both men and women. The covering is to be loose and of fabric opaque enough so that neither the shape of the body nor the skin color is discernable. For men, awrah is the area between the navel and the knees; for women, it is all parts of the body—including the hair—except the hands and the unadorned face. A woman’s face with makeup on it is a different story—once adorned, technically the face becomes awrah (and let’s face it, makeup is used with the intention to enhance and thus attract attention) and should be hidden, hence the face veil.

Other than her unadorned face and her hands, no part of an Islamic woman’s body, including her hair, should be seen by any male unless he is either her spouse or mahram (closely related, with whom marriage would be constituted incestuous; e.g. her father, her brothers, the brothers of her parents, her sons, nephews, etc.)

I tell her about the woman I’d seen in the parking lot the previous summer with the black gloves and stockings, and she laughs. “Wow, you really have seen a lot of things!” She tells me that while the hands are not normally awrah, when decorated with henna some more conservative Muslims consider them similar to a face adorned with makeup, and thus they cover them.

For some reason, I am fixated on the fact that a woman’s hair is awrah, and that it must always be covered in public. The sudden and strong desire to know what my companion’s hair looks like rises and I ask the question impulsively, before stopping to think that it might be offensive. She dismisses my concern, smiling warmly and answering the question so immediately and so openly that I’m reassured, and we spend a few minutes discussing hair in general. Suddenly she pauses, her face completely serious and pointing her index finger at me for emphasis: “You must not tell Jerry what my hair looks like.”

I promise her that I will not.

We talk about fashion, too. I admire her abaya and shaila, which are made of a delicious feeling silk and trimmed with a pretty pattern of small square gold beads and round clear crystals. I mention the many gorgeous patterns and decorations I’ve seen and ask if it’s true that many women purchase new clothes at Eid (the three day holiday that celebrates the end of Ramadan). Yes, she tells me, Eid is definitely a popular time for women to buy a new abaya, but not only at Eid. (Apparently, women are similar worldwide in this regard, and new clothes are welcome at any time of the year.) I ask if most women have just a few abayas or if it’s common for them to have a selection and she laughs. “I have more than thirty,” she admits.

I boggle, but then pull back and consider. This is her professional and public wardrobe we’re talking about, so while thirty seems initially like a whole lot, I decide in retrospect that it’s not, really. I don’t have what I’d consider to be an overly extensive wardrobe, but I bet I could put together thirty different looks without a lot of effort, and I definitely have more than thirty individual pieces in my closet. (And as a side note, when making that tiresome ‘what-to-wear’ decision every morning, sometimes I reach for a dress rather than a skirt or trousers and top simply because it’s easier—there are fewer decisions to make. I’m not going to lie—there are some aspects of wearing an abaya that I find enormously appealing.)

As we talk, I discover that I’m doing some mental realignment of my earlier assumption that wearing an abaya reduces a woman’s means of self-expression. My companion doesn’t adhere to the practice of hijab because she’s Muslim; rather, because she’s Muslim, she adheres to the practice. She would no sooner go out in public uncovered as she would try to fly to the moon unassisted, and it’s not so much that being uncovered would make her feel uncomfortable (though it most definitely would) as it is that wearing her abaya and shaila is as much an expression of her personal identity as my clothing choices are for me.

I want to make sure I’m right about this, so I ask her and she nods, pleased that I understand. My new frame of reference for hijab also gives me entirely new perspective on countries that forbid it; I find myself offended on her behalf.

But I also want to ask about something I’ve noticed while traveling: I’ve boarded planes for destinations where hijab is absolutely allowed, and women thusly attired have boarded with me in Doha; during the flight, however, they have gone to the lavatory and returned to their seat looking as Western as I do. Given what I have just understood about why hijab is worn, it seems incongruous that its practice should extend only until the ‘fasten seat belt’ light goes out. I’m aware that she can’t answer for others, and I don’t want to seem critical. I tread carefully. I know she’s visited the UK and France, and I ask if she wore her abaya there.

She shoots me a wry smile and sighs. “No.”

My ‘why’ hangs in the air, unspoken; she takes a deep breath and faces me squarely. “I do not like to be stared at. Here in Qatar, when I am dressed like this, I am comfortable and no one pays any attention to me.” Her tone clearly implies that this is exactly as it should be. “But elsewhere….” She pauses. “In the United States—if visited America and I walked down the street dressed like this, everyone would stare at me.” Her voice edges on defiant and her look dares me to deny it. I can’t; I nod.

“So.” She pauses. “So, when I went to Paris, to London, I did not dress like this. But I was still covered. I wore a long skirt and a top with long sleeves, a hat over my hair, a scarf around my neck….”

I nod again, comprehension flaring. “You were just as covered then as you are right now, but in a way that no one really notices.”

“Yes. Exactly. I blend in, but I still feel comfortable. I know I am still dressed properly, and no one pays me any attention.”

I tell her about the women I’d seen on the plane and she shrugs eloquently. “Different people, they do different things.” She hesitates, and finally says, “Anyone can pray. You are taught how to do it; praying is easy. But your faith….” She places her hand on her heart. “Your faith, you must find here. What you do, the way you practice—” another shrug “—that is between you and God. Yes?”

Yes. And in that regard, Islam is not so very different from other religions at all.

~~**~~
I feel very fortunate to have gotten to know this woman; she was extraordinarily candid with me and very generous in sharing her thoughts on a wide variety of topics. That first meeting we spent nearly three hours together; though we greeted each other with a handshake, we parted with clasped hands and the traditional cheek-to-cheek kisses, and I was delighted to be able to visit with her several more times before we left Doha.
~~**~~

Below are some photos I took of abayas that I saw different women wearing; though I never got up enough nerve to ask total strangers personal questions about their religious practices, I did ask permission to photograph their sleeves if the women seemed approachable. (They were–I was never denied permission when I asked.) There are also photos of abayas taken in various shops (again, with permission).

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Asian Cup 2011

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Qatar, it is that they certainly know how to do over-the-top ‘spectacle’. (And I mean that mostly in the good way.) The most recent manifestation of this exuberant display was the 2011 AFC Asian Cup tournament, which Qatar hosted from January 7 – 29.

For weeks prior to the opening ceremonies, billboards, magazine and newspaper ads, and gargantuan banners on the sides of buildings trumpeted the coming games with slogans and graphics, and images of the games’ mascots (a family of jerboas drawn in an almost anime sort of fashion) appeared on any and all available surfaces. I admit, I fell completely in love with these little cartoon creatures. Their names were totally unpronounceable to me even when I could see their Romanized form, and I stumbled over saying them as I pointed them out eagerly wherever we went. My enthusiasm for their adorableness wasn’t dimmed in the slightest by Jerry’s helpful—and repeated—observation that jerboas are essentially desert rats. I don’t care; they’re cute desert rats.

Though I’m not exactly a raving football fan, I was more than happy to take in the spectacle and hype, noting with bemused awe the degree to which the city indulged in promoting and celebrating the games. Then again, when there’s no budget and ‘would like’ always translates to ‘can have’, well…yes. One of my favorite things was how the buildings along the Corniche were lit up at night; the lights changed color as you watched. I took a bunch of photos over the span of about twenty minutes one evening, and I think I caught each color change. There were also humongous screens everywhere, broadcasting each game so that people could watch. One such screen was right outside a waterfront restaurant, and I snapped a photo. I didn’t notice until later that in the reflected light, you can see a couple in Arabic dress watching the game.

One particular bit of spectacle caught our attention long before the Asian Cup tournament appeared full force on the public horizon. Way back in the latter part of October (when the city was still in the throes of 2022 Bidding Nation hype) workers began erecting what looked like a huge metal bubble wand on the corner of the major intersection near Khalifa Stadium. It was on my walking route, and I watched with fascination over the course of several weeks as two enormous cranes added components that transformed it from an upright with one huge ring atop it, to concentric rings, to concentric rings with what looked like a huge upright compass rose inside to, finally, a moving sculpture with the compass rose part sitting horizontally, the outer ring stationary, and the two other rings moving so that the whole looked vaguely like electrons are often depicted moving about an atom. Eventually we learned that this was the cauldron for the Asian Cup, and it is a very cool thing indeed. I took photos as the work progressed, and when it was completed, it looked gorgeous at night with the cauldron open and afire, the two inner rings in motion.

The games took place in five different stadia here in Doha, and each was coded with a different color (pink, green, blue, red or orange). There are always banners along the streets here; they are changed regularly to promote different events, and the colors of the banners for the Asian Cup corresponded to that of the nearest stadium. Khalifa, for example, was the pink stadium, so the banners in our neighborhood were pink; when you got near the Al Gharafa stadium, the banners were blue, and so on. One morning as I was driving Jerry to work we discovered that, literally overnight, huge round pink “Asian Cup 2011” stickers had been applied to the roads at regular intervals around Khalifa (I boggled at the additional distraction—believe me, between cell phone use while driving, children popcorning around the insides of vehicles unencumbered by such nuisances as seatbelts or car seats, and the general ‘must get there RIGHT NOW’ factor, there is no need for the state to provide additional entertainment for drivers to focus on). Even the little white rocks in the roundabout near Aspire were adorned: over the course of one particularly aromatic day these were spray painted in the five stadium colors.

As the time for the games drew closer, there appeared signs near Khalifa that said things like, CAUTION! PEDESTRIANS! and—much to my amusement—one that said VVIP Parking (two V’s?) with a huge arrow pointing the way. The games were all televised, and the opening ceremonies were wonderful. We had a sort of visual stereo effect for the fireworks part, because we are close enough to Khalifa that we could see them from our flat, so we watched simultaneously televised and live, out the living room window.

When Jerry emailed me one day to say he’d been given two VVIP tickets to that evening’s game (note the not one, but two, V’s) I was less excited than I might have been; it was a yoga night, so going to the game meant missing class (and I am nothing if not determined to return Stateside in better shape than when I left). But the message implied as Jerry had been handed the tickets was that it was pretty much a command performance for him, so we went. As it turned out, we had a very enjoyable evening. The weather was lovely, Qatar shut out Kuwait 3-0, and our VVIP tickets were eminently worthy of both V’s. (If I’d known our seats were of the overstuffed, upholstered-in-crushed-velvet sort with plush carpeting beneath them and about a meter’s worth of space in front, and that there would be waiters passing trays of hors d’oeuvres and juices, I might have stepped up my dress a bit. But hey, it was a sporting event after all, and at least I wasn’t wearing jeans.)

Though Qatar did advance to the quarter final round, the tournament ended for them there. (The following day’s newspaper showed the baby of the mascot family sitting in front of a football goal, tears trailing down his face. Poor sad little boo.) Japan played Australia for the cup in an excellent final game, which we watched on television. Japan won 1-0 with seconds left in the second overtime with a gorgeous goal. You can see it in this composite photo, made from a series of pictures taken by one of Jerry’s colleagues, Bernard Menettrier De Jollin; it’s pretty amazing.

There is a larger version of this photo HERE.

And I’ve put a bunch of my photos into a slideshow below:

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A few words (okay, more than a few) about education and reading.

Some things can’t be rushed; like many trite sayings, there’s a lot of truth to it.

It’s one thing, for instance, to build a first world city from scratch in record time, complete with a full slate of administrative offices, industry, commerce, and retail establishments of every imagining: all you need there are some very deep pockets. It’s quite another, though, to acquire the necessary number of skilled administrators, operators, managers and systems personnel to have it all up and running efficiently and effectively as quickly as you’re building it. The solution, as evidenced here in Qatar, is to use some more of the ready cash from the aforementioned well-lined pockets to hire expert help in all areas from countries all over the world and have them run things.

That’s a reasonable stopgap measure but it’s not ideal, and one of the State’s priorities is to have qualified Qatari of both genders assume leadership and executive roles in the workforce as quickly as possible. The key word here is ‘qualified’; in the context of being qualified for a particular job, the word usually translates to someone with relevant experience or education or (optimally) both, and that definition holds here.

The problem is, given the speed of the country’s modernization there’s no historical resource pool of experience to draw from, and education—well. That’s another one of those things you just can’t rush.

Education in developed countries has gone through a long and complicated evolutionary process to get where it is today and while I don’t think anyone would argue that there’s still considerable room for continued improvement, we have, as they say, come a long way. Money obviously has a significant impact in how fast the process happens. If you can’t buy books or basic supplies, progress is much slower; if you have tons of money and can afford not only those basics but super-cool things like libraries and research resources, computers with specialized software, and laboratories for hands-on experimentation, then things can click along at a much faster rate. Certainly in many places a generous influx of money would make a huge difference in facilitating the evolutionary process of ‘good education’ but an equally important factor is the historical value that the particular society places on education. That comes, at least in part, from the evolutionary process. The education itself must be seen as worthwhile and hence something to be desired, and for this to happen, there must be evidence of its benefits—a process that takes time.

In many underdeveloped and developing nations of the world, both the money and perceived value of education are missing; that’s a brutal combination. When you’re hanging out at the lowest end of the ‘have/have not’ scale, things like food and money tend to take priority over sending your kids to school—especially when school might be miles away and the kids might instead spend their time helping procure those more precious commodities. Studies have shown, though, that once a family can eke its way up in the ‘have’ direction enough to meet their basic needs, the first thing they look at is getting those kids to school. And they’ll do whatever they have to in order to get their kids to the best one around.

As a nation, Qatar sits pretty high on the ‘have’ end of things, and there are schools galore here. State organized education began quite modestly back in 1952, with a single primary school enrolling 240 boys taught by half a dozen teachers; while the system has been growing since then, the vast majority of that growth has been quite recent, as part of the ‘modernization’ of Qatar under the current regime (HH the Emir has been in power since 1995). The Supreme Education Council (SEC) assumed charge of state education about four years ago, taking over from the now-defunct Ministry of Education. One of the things the SEC has accomplished is the development of a standard curriculum; more about this in a minute.

Education today is open to both boys and girls but all state schools (called ‘state independent schools’) are divided by gender. At present, there are 137 state independent schools in Qatar: 67 for girls and 69 for boys. (I wonder how long this separation will go on; one of the long-term effects will certainly be an exacerbation of the current challenging issue of conservative Qatari women refusing to work in any situation where men are present—but that’s a whole different kettle of fish.)

While neither money nor an appreciation for education is lacking at the State level, that’s a fairly recent state of affairs, and the educational system is not without its share of interesting challenges as it works its way through growing pains. One of the biggest challenges for the state independent system is that there are currently no state schools using the SEC curriculum that are internationally accredited. That accreditation is greatly desired because among Qatari, an institution of higher education in the UK or the US is most preferable. (One state school—a girls’ school—does have it, but they use the IB curriculum, not the one designed by the SEC.) Another issue in state schools is that English is taught as a second language, but all other classes are taught in Arabic, thus English fluency is not nearly what it needs to be for many graduates to qualify for university regardless of their grades in other classes (even here at Qatar University the required level of English fluency is quite rigorous.) And last but by no means least is the issue of what’s really being learned: while the royal family might be promoting the importance of education, the concept hasn’t necessarily filtered down to the students yet. Or their parents. Though teachers in state schools are native Arabic speakers, few are Qatari, and the prevailing social stratum of Arabic nationalities here not-so-subtly assumes that Qatari children will receive passing marks, no matter what. Not all those who attend state independent schools are Qatari (though most are), nor do all Qatari children attend the state independent schools.

Because the international and expatriate population is so enormous (and often temporary—one to four years is a common ‘stint’), there is a plethora of other schools, many catering specifically to a particular nationality. There are schools for French, Sudanese, Lebanese, Indian, Pakistani, Philippine, and Canadian nationals, each taught in that particular language and each with a curriculum lifted directly out of schools in the respective nations; children can thus transfer relatively seamlessly from their home school to the one in Doha and back again when the family moves home. In addition to state independent schools (which use the SEC curriculum) or national-specific schools (with their home curricula), there is a whole raft of what are called ‘private independent schools’ with other curricula: Montessori schools, schools that follow the National Curriculum of England and Wales, ones that use the Cambridge IGCSE, or the IB and/or AP curricula—it’s amazing. (One such school—the British Newton School—is across the street from our compound. I will spare you the gory details of what morning drop-off is like, but I’ve rambled on enough about driving in Doha. Just add a ridiculous number of pint-size pedestrians, undesignated street side parking on both sides of the road, perennially rushed parents, and a complete disregard for through traffic into the mix; shake well, step back, and let your imagination take over. It’s a treat.) These schools all have an application process (and fees, of course); the population at these schools tends to encompass multiple nationalities, and the language of instruction for all classes is English. And here is where you will find some Qatari children, mostly from wealthy families: at schools where there is an internationally accredited curriculum in place taught in English by teachers who will hold the Qatari children as accountable as their peers from other nations, and where graduating with commendable grades will qualify the student for university.

The issues that state independent schools are grappling with are pretty easy to identify, and while addressing and correcting them won’t be easy, there are definitive steps that could be taken. Also, the schools and the SEC policy wonks have a decent amount of control in making the necessary change happen in order to achieve the desired outcomes.

That’s not the case with at least one larger issue at play: this is not a reading culture. This is understandable given the historically short period of time they’ve been a modern society. Still, that’s an imposing hurdle to clear from an educational mentality—in the States, there’s a saying about third grade being a transition year from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’, and that’s no small transition. A significant portion of a successful student’s knowledge base ultimately comes from reading.

I don’t mean to imply that the Qatari can’t read and write; they definitely can. The literacy rate here is very high and in addition to their native Arabic, most Qatari can speak reasonably good conversational English. But that doesn’t translate to fluency, not by a long shot, and there doesn’t seem to be any perceived value in using the skills they do possess to read for education or enjoyment. A trip to any of several local retail establishments labeled ‘bookstore’ will make this clear. My favorite of such is called Jarir Bookstore; the logo includes the phrase “…not just a bookstore” beneath the store name and it’s not kidding. The particular store I like to visit (Jarir is a chain) is brand-new and quite big—almost the size of your basic Barnes & Noble or Borders store in the States—and it’s two floors.

You won’t find a single book on the entire first floor. What you will find are computers, video games, a staggering array of office supplies, and an impressive variety of fine art and drafting supplies, but no books (to be fair, the magazines and newspapers are on the first floor). On the second floor, there are more arts and crafts supplies, a selection of educational toys for the primary school set, and, finally, books. The books take up about half of the available floor space upstairs, split evenly between English and Arabic titles. The English section has a bit of everything: a decent selection of classics, an interesting assortment of textbooks (I was excited to find a single copy of Stewart’s Calculus, yay!), a hodge-podge of what look like books from the ‘Bargain’ display at a B&N, and three small aisles of fiction. Recent titles and best sellers are among the titles for sale, but browsing was definitely challenging: the fiction is arranged strictly by author’s last name regardless of genre, so mysteries, popular fiction, science fiction and romance novels are oddly juxtaposed; I will say it made for some amusing book-neighbors. Still, it’s heartening to see books readily available; I’ve a friend who has lived in Doha for nearly four years and when she and her family moved here, books were scarce. Even more heartening is the wide selection of children’s books available in the Arabic language section; clearly, the powers that be recognize the need to encourage a love of reading at an early age.

One of the driving forces behind fostering the growth of education in Qatar is Her Highness Sheikha Mozah, and one of the things she’s paying a lot of attention to is changing the cultural attitude about reading. I saw one of those initiatives in full force on the day I visited the Doha International Book Fair, a ten-day event held at the Doha Exhibition Center back in November. The Exhibition Center was absolutely packed: in addition to an impressive number of adults, there was what can only be termed an invasion of very young school children on field trips to the fair. (One of the most adorable sights I’ve seen in a very long time was a class of four-year-old boys—thirty-two of them—being shepherded through the fair by their abayah-clad teachers. The boys were dressed in school uniforms of navy shorts and light blue shirts, all huge solemn eyes and dark hair, standing two by two before a table covered with brightly colored paperback preschool books. Each tot was clutching a glossy yellow plastic bag in one hand and most held their marching partner’s hand with the other as they waited patiently for their turn to approach the table and choose a book, which the vendor dropped into proffered bag. I might actually have uttered an audible awwwww as I passed them.) I saw other groups of school children all holding similar yellow bags, and I’m guessing that taking a book home was part and parcel with the field trip.

While I wandered through the fair (which housed nearly 30,000 titles in Arabic and over 7,000 titles in other languages), I noticed that a significant percentage of books and educational ‘learning-to-read’ toys were aimed at the ten-years-and-under age group. I remember thinking that it was pretty much a kid’s dream to wander amongst the aisles, and that I’d be hard pressed to choose just one book; obviously, that’s the point. Start the reading early and often and encourage, encourage, encourage.

In the meantime, there are the kids moving through the educational system as it (and they) are right now; it’s definitely a work in progress. That’s fair enough. When your people have made the transition from fishermen and nomadic camel herders to inhabitants of a 21st century city in two short generations, that doesn’t allow a lot of ramp-up time to get everyone accustomed to the wonders (and rigors) of ‘good education’ or, in fact, to even necessarily define what a ‘good education’ means in the context of your country’s development and long range goals.

Case in point: an article in the January 18th edition of The Peninsula (one of the Doha daily newspapers) reports that the Qatar Center for Heritage and Identity, in collaboration with the Supreme Education Council, is planning to introduce Qatari heritage to the curriculum. The center plans to form groups in preparatory schools to promote Qatari national heritage with the goal of ‘bringing about a unified vision for the next generation’. Admirable.

Their first step? They’re working to publish some books on the topic.

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the Doha equivalent to the dog in the back of the pickup truck…

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Qatar: cultural change in the face of fantastic economic advancement

There is so much that is changing right now in Qatar.

Most obvious, of course, is the city of Doha: the construction is on a scale that’s hard to comprehend if you don’t actually see it. Skyscrapers, mosques, residential compounds, private homes, shopping malls, gas stations, hotels, hospitals, research centers, grocery stores and every kind of retail and service industry you can imagine (and some you probably can’t) are coming to life daily. Buildings are being erected at an astonishing rate.

Case in point: the photo below shows a part of the Corniche (the horseshoe-shaped road that runs along Doha Bay). Just to the right of center (and immediately left of the building that looks like a reversed “D”) are two quite small towers with vertical stretches of bright white concrete and greenish windows—the Al Salam Towers. A mere eight years ago, these buildings were the tallest structures along the Corniche. Amazing.

Local lore has it that the Emir—whose office faces this view—wanted a beautiful skyline to look at. He’s certainly getting it. As you move out from the Corniche, construction doesn’t lessen, and there are cranes and bulldozers and buildings-in-progress practically everywhere you look.

[Complete aside: Jerry once gave me directions to a store I wanted to visit; he included the phrase ‘then you go past where they’re building that big mosque…’ and while outwardly I nodded and continued to listen, inwardly I was rather exasperated. At that time there were no fewer than four mosques under construction within a few kilometers of our compound—bit of local lore #2 is that in Doha there is a mosque or prayer room every 500 meters, and if this misses, it’s not by much—so as far as descriptive landmarks go, I didn’t find this particularly helpful.

Exhibit A, workers constructing the minaret of a mosque:

I got in the car and set off, hoping I was going the right way (because getting lost in Doha is an adventure I try to limit) and muttering under my breath about unhelpful directions and how the only thing that would possibly have been less helpful was if he’d mentioned a compound being built. I’d worked myself into quite a snit about the whole thing, actually (“Where they’re building the mosque, he says…for heaven’s sake, where aren’t they building a mosque?”), when I came around a corner and the sight suddenly before me made me recall Jerry’s specific descriptive: the BIG mosque.

Oh. The big mosque. I offered a mental apology to my spouse and continued on.]

While new buildings go up with seeming ease, a lot of the social change that’s happening as a result isn’t quite that smooth. The Qatari culture is one of the oldest on Earth; they are absolutely grounded and guided by the traditions of Islam, but because the financial and material change has happened so rapidly that the social culture has simply not had time to evolve along with it. Oil wasn’t discovered and exported on a commercial scale until the mid-20th century, and the vast majority of modernization has occurred within the past fifteen years under the current Emir, HH Sheikh Hamad bid Khalifa Al-Thani, who assumed power in 1995.

Forty years ago, the Qatari were largely nomads or fishermen; today they live in one of the most modern cities in the world. They are balanced between their past and their future, with their heritage and culture on the one side and what I think of as the invasion of modern times—inevitable—on the other. The old and the new are bridged by a single generation.

That’s a big shift in a very short time; the result is an odd feeling of being simultaneously in the past and future—one walks amongst brand-new residential compounds and buildings of George Jetson-esque design only to hear the ancient call to prayer intoned from the loudspeakers at every mosque (five times each day) and see Qatari in traditional garb stop whatever it is that they’re doing and head for the nearest prayer room. While moving forward doesn’t necessarily mean losing the past, I don’t think things can stay the same.

The cell phone/internet/consumerist society (and make no mistake about it—Qatar is all of those) and the devout and conservative culture of Islam are strange bedfellows indeed, and their coexistence is an odd and not always easy thing. I watch it, fascinated and rabidly curious to see how it will progress, and feeling very much as though this next generation is on the cusp of an even more enormous shift. There are many Qatari who well remember a time when the Corniche was a desert expanse and daily life meant herding camels or fishing, but there is also this newest generation which knows only skyscrapers and technology—cell phones, XBox, Disney, SpongeBob, FaceBook and shopping malls that have ice rinks and playgrounds inside them. They have parents who can afford to indulge (and over indulge) them. I would think that even the most devout and conservative families are struggling to hold on to the ways of their parents even as they succumb to the demands of their children for the slick and shiny toys that surround them.

As one–only one–point to consider, how do you maintain ancient traditions that require gender separation for everything (and I do mean everything—in addition to gender-separate classrooms, there are separate mosques, banking facilities, tailors, health care facilities—the list goes on, and Qatari marriages are still arranged, the bride and groom often not meeting until their wedding day) in the face of an onslaught of permissiveness and progress that is practically engulfing them?

Adding to the complication is the fact that the Qatari are a distinct minority in their own country (there are 1.6 million people in Qatar, of which only 250,000 are Qatari). They are literally surrounded by a sea of expatriates and immigrant workers, and while this means that they are extremely tolerant of Western ways, it also means that they’re going to have to work hard to prevent their cultural identity from being overwhelmed and absorbed by the press of other people’s.

I have nothing but admiration and respect for the planning and broad-mindedness with which the Emir and his advisors are moving the country forward: they are considering all the possibilities before them. Their enormous challenge will be to continue to move into the future—to choose among those possibilities and make them reality—without losing the grounding of their Muslim culture and tradition, and they definitely have a plan as to how that will happen (the Qatar National Vision 2030; you can Google it—it’s interesting reading).

In the short time I’ve lived in Doha, two of those choices have been pushed to the forefront of public awareness: football and gas.

First, a few words about football.

As you may or may not know, on December 2 Qatar was awarded the FIFA bid to host the 2022 World Cup Games. (One of the other four nations bidding was the United States.) I’m sure there are many, many people in the US who were aware of the bid, but I would bet money (a thing I rarely do) that if you calculated the percentage of people living in the US who were aware that the US was a bidding nation before December 2 and the percentage of people living in Qatar who were aware of Qatar’s bid, the latter would be much, much higher. For a full year before the decision, if you traveled anywhere in Doha, you couldn’t help but be aware: Qatar’s bid slogan, EXPECT AMAZING, was plastered everywhere, along with the words Qatar: Bidding Nation 2022–on billboards, in newspaper ads, on signs on the sides of buildings, painted on taxis and buses; businesses posted signs that said, “We support Qatar’s bid for 2022”, and there were t-shirts, hats, and pins—it was incredible. I am not the most sports-minded or sports-aware person in the world, but believe me when I say you could not be in this country and not know that they were a bidding nation for 2022:

It was also exceedingly clear that there was enormous national pride in just being a bidding nation. I’d never seen anything like it—I was so impressed by the unrestrained enthusiasm and public face of confidence and excitement.

A few weeks before the bid award, the ads in the paper—on the front page as well as throughout—trumpeted the December 2 coming announcement and encouraged readers to ‘come together as one people to share the decision’. Huge broadcast screens were erected outdoors in various places in the city, and people did, indeed, come out en masse to watch as the decision in Zurich happened. (Her Highness Sheikha Mozah made an impassioned speech at the final presentation in Zurich—it’s on YouTube, if you’re interested. She is a most impressive woman: intelligent, articulate, and forward thinking. She is the driving force behind many of the education initiatives in Qatar and is widely considered to be one of the most powerful women in the Middle East.) When Qatar was announced as the winner, it was every bit as much a scene of euphoric pandemonium as you might imagine. I was genuinely thrilled that they’d won. Prior to the decision, I thought about how devastating it would be if they lost—and that just ratcheted my respect up another notch. In a culture where pride is important and saving face is everything, it took enormous courage to make such a public spectacle of the decision; after the phenomenal buildup, it would have been a long way to fall.

In winning the bid, Qatar has put itself on the world map in a number of very big ways, and at every step of the journey they took to get there, they reinforced their identity as a nation—very, very smart.

I had the opportunity to see the twenty-minute video that formed the basis of Qatar’s formal bid when the FIFA committee visited Doha in September, and it was comprehensive, well thought out and slickly made. There will be new stadia built (some of which will be disassembled following the games, and transported to underdeveloped nations to help promote the growth of football there), city infrastructure installed, hotels and public transport built—suffice it to say that the award of the bid is going to keep Qatar’s construction process moving along for quite a while. The projected budget for the whole thing? One hundred billion (that’s in US dollars).

And how will they pay for that, you might well ask?

I shall answer in one word: cash. (I’m pretty sure they were the only bidding nation with the ability to literally write a check for the whole thing right there on December 2–not that that’s a requirement.)

And that money comes largely from gas.

Another recent newspaper-ad blitz has centered on Qatar achieving their goal output of liquid natural gas (LNG); they had a huge formal celebration of this milestone on December 13, with His Highness Sheikh Hamad bid Khalifa Al-Thani presiding. (And again, the emphasis was always on the nation’s achievement. National identity. National pride.)

Oh, and said milestone? Seventy seven billion tons of LNG per year. SEVENTY SEVEN BILLION TONS. As annual output. They project being able to sustain this production rate for the next hundred years. There’s crude oil, too, but LNG is the big deal right now. To put all that lovely fossil fuel into context: Qatar is a nation whose GDP grew 9% in 2009 and 16% this year; their projected growth for 2011 is a whopping 24%.

It’s heady stuff, all this bid winning and gas producing. They’re riding an understandable high around here, and I don’t mind admitting that I will watch the World Cup with more than passing interest (if from afar) in 2022 to see what I expect by then will be a nearly-unrecognizable place. I’ve loved being here to see both the lead-in and achievement of these events; it’s not exaggerating to say that they are history-making. While the LNG milestone was planned, the 2022 bid—fervently hoped for but universally considered to be something of a long shot—was icing on the cake.

In an instance of perfect timing to sustain the momentum of national pride, following hard on the heels of these two historic events came Qatar’s National Day, which is December 18. This celebration is fairly new, and this year the powers that be added a nice component. The full week before National Day there was a fair-like event called the Darb Al Saai, where huge tents housed everything from photography exhibits to local handicrafts to a shooting range. I went several times to explore everything and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

In the handicrafts tent there were women carding and spinning yarn, making the yarn into strong, sturdy cording that was dyed various colors, and then weaving the cording into gorgeous pieces. There was a man carving gypsum in the traditional fashion for architectural use, there were people serving Arabian coffee (I’m not so much a cardamom fan, so I don’t like this very much), a woman offering to paint henna designs on your hands or feet (I had my hands done), and lovely little Arabian sweets (they do like their sweets here!)

There was also a small replica of a hunting village complete with falcons, oryxes (an oryx is a small gazelle-like creature, and Qatar’s national animal), and salukis. A saluki is a greyhound-like hunting dog—not quite as fast as a greyhound, but better in the ‘endurance and stamina’ categories. It is arguably the oldest known domesticated breed of dog, and is native to the Middle East. Here, instead of using guns, hunters often use salukis: the dog chases down the prey (an oryx, for example) and holds it until the hunter can get there and kill it with a knife. If the hunter also owns a falcon, so much the better: he will release the falcon to locate and spot the prey, then set the saluki on it.

In the hunting village area I was allowed to hold a falcon, and Ali (the lovely man who showed me around and told me about how falcons are caught and used) took a photo of me doing so. I’m easy to spot, as I am the sole un-thobed person in a sea of thobes (yes, I am also the only woman in sight, and the only blond in—I am pretty sure—the whole place at that point). In case you still can’t spot me, I’m also the one holding the falcon.

There was an enormous theater tent where documentary films about Qatari culture were screened (much to my disappointment, they seemed to be offered in Arabic only) and there was a camel arena. And in the camel arena, they had camel-saddling competitions and camel dressage.

Yes, really. It was awesome. All of it.

Amid the hype (and undeniable modernity) of the FIFA decision and meeting the LNG goal, this intense focus on tradition and culture was a lovely counterpoint. It makes the idea of being able to balance the rush of progress with the slow pace of the past seem somehow doable, after all.

~~**~~**~~

There are a whole lot of photos in this gallery; the last seventeen photos are a sequence showing one camel and rider going through the whole dressage route.

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sightseeing in Egypt

Considering the short amount of time we were in Egypt, we managed to cram a fair amount into the trip: in addition to the trip to Giza, we saw amazing mosques and a huge Christian complex and we took a trip to Alexandria to go on a Nile River excursion. We also tried to see the view from the top of the Cairo Tower, but a foggy morning combined with the ever-present smog, and we saw only fog and smog. Ah, well, you can’t win them all. I also feel practically obliged to rattle on for a bit about driving and traffic in Cairo; I might just as well start with that and get it out of the way.

If driving in Qatar was a new and initially unsettling experience, at least it served to build up my resistance to horrific driving so that being on the roads in Kathmandu was (probably) less terrifying than it might have been. Following along this same logic, it’s fair to say that Kathmandu traffic was, in turn, good preparation for that which we experienced in Cairo—a sort of acclimatization process, if you will.

Jerry observed that Cairo traffic was similar to that in Kathmandu, just on bigger roads, going a lot faster. That’s certainly a good take on things: the main roads are much bigger than those in Kathmandu (think US Route 95 or the M25 in London for comparison), and the average speed on said roads was 110 kph/65 mph. As in Nepal, there were: carts drawn by livestock being driven by teenagers (to their credit, they did tend to stay on the far right side of the road, but they also sometimes went against the direction of the traffic); buses with people hanging off the back or standing partly in- and partly outside of open doors while traveling, pell-mell, along the highway; cars, motorcycles, panel trucks, and pickup trucks (usually well over-loaded with whatever cargo they were hauling plus additional passengers).

But there were also two interesting differences between driving in Cairo and driving anywhere else I’ve ever been.

First: a shocking number of people seem to consider headlight use while driving at night to be optional. To be fair, the roads are well lit, and lots of people do drive with headlights on, so maybe they’re just letting those light sources do the job and going for maximum bulb life. Still, it’s a tad unnerving.

Second (and definitely unnerving) is the fact that in Cairo, the lines on the roads seem to be painted on strictly for decorative purposes. Roads that are ostensibly two lanes wide are routinely traveled with vehicles three or four abreast, and on that 95-like road (which looks as though it ought to be four lanes) the number was as high as seven. Case in point is the photo below (we are in the far-left lane; there is a lane between the red Chevy truck and the red car to its left).

Drivers move with awe-inspiring if cringe-inducing speed between other cars and the distance between moving vehicles as a general rule was a lot closer than I’d prefer to be at a dead stop in a parking lot. The whole experience was…well, I’m pretty much out of superlatives at this point, so I’ll just let the picture below say its thousand words (and yes, all cars were moving forward at a good clip when I snapped this).

Oddly enough, I found myself much more relaxed during the whole traffic/riding thing in Cairo than in Kathmandu (or my first days of driving in Doha, for that matter). I think I must have entered some sort of passenger nirvana where I just took it all in and blithely assumed that because this was the way everybody drove, it must be okay. This is not to say that we didn’t see plenty of accidents (and people just get out of their cars wherever that occurs, shouting and gesticulating while the other traffic moves around them, like a stream water around a rock), or that my eyebrows weren’t permanently sky-high, or that I didn’t hiss, “That can’t possibly be safe!” at Jerry every ten minutes. It does mean that when our cab driver cheerfully informed us that “to drive in Cairo, you must have a heart of steel, forty extra eyes, and a lot of luck”, I just assumed that he had all of that.

Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, we spent a gorgeous chunk of one day visiting a handful of mosques in what is called Old Cairo. We had to remove our shoes before entering the mosques, and this was the only place we’ve been thus far where I was asked to cover my head and arms. (Clean scarves available at the entrance, to be placed in the enormous bowl labeled ‘used’ as we exited.)

Built between 1356 and 1363, the Mosque of Sultan Hasan is considered to be one of the most compact and unified from a stylistic point; it is situated directly next to the much newer Mosque of Al Rifai (1869-1912), which (though architecturally designed to complement the Mosque of Sultan Hasan) was an attempt by the rulers of the time to modernize the city. Both are breathtakingly beautiful; inside the main prayer room of the older mosque there was a Muslim man who sat us on the floor and intoned part of the Qur’an for us. It was a beautiful thing to listen to: he held his hands cupped around his mouth, varying the degree and direction to which they opened as he sang and the acoustics were stunning.

These mosques are very close to the Cairo Citadel (also called the Saladin Citadel). It was built between 1176 and 1183 by order of Salah al-Din as a defense against the Crusaders. The Citadel itself was the centerpiece of a wall intended to surround both Cairo and neighboring Fustat, and the structure included an elaborate well and aqueduct system to supply the city with water. Huge stretches of the aqueduct are still visible—very cool.

The Mosque Ahmad Ibn Tulun, commissioned by Ahmad himself (he was the Abbasid governor of Egypt from 868-884AD), is the oldest in the city still in its original form (the inscription slab marks completion in 879 AD) and is, area-wise, the largest. It is also the mosque that has that distinctive spiral minaret, and (for movie buffs) it’s where some parts of The Spy Who Loved Me was shot, along with the adjacent Gayer-Anderson Museum. The Gayer-Anderson Museum is the former Ottoman-style residence of British Major R.G. Gayer-Anderson, who got special permission in 1935 from the Egyptian government to live there. He added electricity and plumbing to the newly-restored 17th century style abode and filled it with his personal (and impressively large) collection of Islamic art and furnishings from the same era. In 1942, ill health forced him to return to England, so he gifted the contents of the house to Egypt (in return, King Farouk—the second-to-last King of Egypt—gave him the title ‘Pasha’).

There is a small but strong Christian contingent in Cairo and when I found out that there was a St. George’s Church in the city it immediately got put on our to-see list. The main building of the complex is now a nunnery (home to about thirty-five women), and is not open to the public, but there are other churches in the compound, including the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (these are believed to be the oldest in Cairo, and are built on the spot where Jesus and his family rested after their flight to Egypt). There is also a Jewish synagogue in the compound (again—the oldest in Egypt, and this said to be the site where Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby Moses).

The religious compound where St. George’s is located was, incidentally, one of the most rigorously tended entrances of all the places we visited. There were literally Tourism Police (not just a fancy title—these guys had guns and everything) everywhere we went, and as an aside I will say that while being American (and apparently we stick out a mile wide as such) did result in us being an immediate magnet for every vendor selling tchotchkes within a mile radius, the flip side of that coin is that being American also brings incredible privilege. Incredible. We didn’t see a lot of Westerners anywhere we went, but we did see a lot of people being questioned on their way into mosques and such, some at quite some length; we were asked where we were from (or, more often, asked directly if we were from America) and promptly waved through.

To gain entrance to the religious compound you needed to show identification. There was quite a line, and the people ahead of us mostly had passports in hand; at this point I told Jerry there was a good chance I wouldn’t be able to get in, as I had not a speck of identification on me. He had his wallet, and thus his Doha resident card and American driving license, but I had zilch. We waited in line, watching as proffered IDs were carefully scrutinized before the person was allowed in. One man was denied entrance and pushed rather unceremoniously to one side. He protested, waving his ID card in one hand and trying to push through the entrance; this resulted in his being hauled bodily aside by an officer and a very loud and fairly physical argument took place. I became even more convinced that I wouldn’t be allowed inside (there were other couples in line ahead of us, and both had been asked for ID) but when we got to the turnstile, the guard barely glanced at Jerry’s ID before waving us both almost impatiently inside.

There were plenty more officers roaming the complex, and they all greeted us (“Hello, America!”) One asked us for an American dollar; as it happened, I had American currency with me, and so (to his enormous delight), I gave him one. This turned out to be a minor tactical error: one young boy saw me give the officer the dollar and promptly began following us through the throng, entreating me to give him one, too. I would dearly have loved to—I had another—but he had plenty of friends and I knew the second I gave in we would be swarmed by a whole passel of kids. I didn’t have either the emotional energy or the number of single dollar bills I’d need to deal with the situation. I ended up refusing the boy, and he was so crestfallen that it made me really sad.

While living conditions in Cairo didn’t seem quite as bad as those in Kathmandu, they’re far from great: a lot of people live with very little. This was most readily evident the afternoon we went up to the outskirts of Alexandria, where we met up with a colleague of Jerry’s from Aspire (he’s studying at one of the universities in Cairo) and went on a Nile River excursion with him and half a dozen of his friends. It was a beautiful day, and we motored gently along, stopping several times, first to have tea (served in small clear handle-less glasses), then at a family run farm where one of the crops is honey. At our next stop we left the vessel for a short (forty minutes or so) tour of the immediate area in horse drawn carriages; by then night had fallen and it had actually gotten a bit chilly, so when we returned to where the boat was waiting, we first stopped at a tea and sheesha house for refreshment. Everywhere we went, the people we met were hard working and visibly extremely poor, and nothing anywhere was anything remotely resembling ‘clean’.

I remember sitting on the grimy sofa at our last tea-stop and wondering vaguely how the dishes had been washed, then thought about some of the things I’d seen that day and decided that dish washing really didn’t matter in the larger scheme of things. After all, tea is made with boiling water, right?

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Giza, Egypt

I’ve always wanted to see the pyramids in Egypt; it seemed incredible to me that such massive structures could be made with such phenomenal precision so long before the advent of ‘modern’ measuring and construction equipment, and no matter how hard I tried, I could never really get a grasp on the scope of their size.

The Great Pyramid (also called the Pyramid of Cheops) was the tallest man-made structure when it was built, and held that title for some 3800 years. (Not bad, as records go. It is also the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing.) Even after years of erosion it soars to a height of just over 455 feet, and the length of each base clocks in at about 755 feet (the four sides have an average error of something like 58 mm, while the stones of the base itself is base were cut to such precision that the base is flat to within 21 mm). The sides of the base are true to the compass points (true north) within 1/15th of one degree. Would that I could get that sort of relative precision with anything I make!

And then there’s the scope of the thing: the Great Pyramid is comprised of some 2.3 million stones, each weighing an average of 2.5 tons. In order to have built the thing in 20 years (the accepted time frame) and working 24/7, something like 12 blocks would have had to been put into place every hour.

I couldn’t imagine it.

What would it feel like to stand next to one? What did they really look like, up close?

I thought it highly unlikely that I’d never know…after all, Egypt is so far away. But as I’ve come to understand in a very fundamental way, ‘far’ is a relative term. And though Cairo isn’t what anyone would easily call ‘close’ to Doha, it’s a whole lot less far from Doha than it is from Bristol, RI.

A three hour flight. Thirteen hundred miles. Closer than we’d probably ever be again…so, we went. Four days, three nights, Cairo, Alexandria, Giza and back and my head is still spinning. It was amazing.

When I finally stood next to the Great Pyramid I still couldn’t quite believe it, but I had to…it was right there before me. It’s the kind of thing that I think my photos don’t really capture, but I took a whole bunch, just to try to remind myself what it was like.

I was awed.

There are three pyramids at Giza: the Great Pyramid (Pyramid of Cheops), the Pyramid of Chephran (this one looks taller, but was constructed on higher ground), and the Pyramid of Mycerinus (the smallest, and built by the grandson the Khufu, builder of that first, great one).

There’s also the Sphinx, and he’s a bit worse for the wear but still so, so mind-boggling to see. It’s not just the intricacy of the carving of the facial features or the beautiful sense of scale and proportion; it’s the incredible audacity of the sculptor to think that he could just start carving a statue of such immense proportions right out the bedrock in the Giza plateau–and then to succeed on such a magnificent level.

I really think I’ve never seen any structures made by man quite so wonderful.

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the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

I’ve been to the Museum of Islamic Art here in Doha three times, and I am already planning to go again. Every time I’m there, I see things I’ve not noticed before—both exhibit-wise and building-wise.

The building itself is gorgeous. Designed by I.M. Pei (who had to be persuaded to come out of retirement to take on the job), the museum sits in the Gulf of Persia just off of Doha’s Corniche on a 60-plus acre island of reclaimed land. (Apparently Pei didn’t want the museum to get crowded in by other buildings, and he thus rejected all the suggested sites along the Corniche; my guess is that he’d taken one look at the snarl of construction that is Doha, seen the handwriting on the wall as far as that whole encroachment thing went, and decided that an island was really the only possible way to prevent it.) It’s a fairly recent addition to the city of Doha: it opened to the public in December of 2008.

Seen from a distance down the Corniche, the building seems almost as though it’s floating on the water, and depending on the time of day, the sun plays off of the angles and planes of the limestone surfaces of the building, creating a collage of shadows and bright facets that form a work of art in and of itself. The top tier of the building pays homage to the traditional face veil worn by Arabic women: it is a cube with a shallow curved cutout in each face, situated so that from the front of the museum (and any other true elevation) you see two sides of the cube, the cut slits appearing to be the eye holes in the veil.

As you get closer to the building, it just gets better and better to look at, and is absolutely worth a trip to the center of Doha to see even if you have no interest in going inside.

But if you ever get the chance, you really should go inside.

The attention to detail in the building’s design reflects Pei’s understanding of Arabic culture and custom (he reportedly spent six months traveling the Middle East before sitting down at his design board), and the subtlety of pattern and shape throughout makes a phenomenal setting and foil for the art without competing with it.

The museum occasionally hosts temporary exhibits and I’ve been fortunate enough to see two of these. While you can photograph everything in the museum proper, photography has not been allowed at all in either of the two special exhibits I’ve seen. I was especially disappointed by this restriction when I went to the Pearl Exhibit last March, as I would have dearly loved to photograph three particular items: a scarf made entirely from pearls (5000 of them, if you’re curious); a rug made entirely from seed pearls (this time the count is 1.5 million), diamonds (no count given, but trust me, there were lots of them), and glass beads; and a shift style dress of black velvet (designed by Coco Chanel–who else?) sewn all over with pearls and black crystals in a checkerboard pattern.

The temporary exhibit currently in residence is titled, “A Journey into the World of the Ottomans” and it is beautifully done. There is a small series of photographs by urban photographer Bas Princen and another (slightly larger) series of Arabian-inspired abstract images by Vanessa Hodgkinson, but my favorite pieces, by far, were the paintings by eighteenth century artist Jean-Baptiste Vanmour. The highlight was a ten(ish) minute video scored by beautiful music and showing a series of images that morph back and forth between live video of various sites in Istanbul and hundreds-of-years-old paintings (all of which are also part of the exhibit) depicting those same sites. The camera zooms in to show exquisite detail in both the live footage and the paintings, the images melting from live to painted and back again, superimposed on each other almost perfectly as the changeover occurs. The degree to which the current-day stuff is recognizable—indeed, largely unchanged—from the images captured in paint all those years ago is…kind of magical.

The permanent exhibits encompass everything from ancient and beautifully illuminated pages from the Qur’an to intricately painted mosque lanterns to tools, weapons, jewelry (there’s a lot of bling in this museum, and even though I was sad about not being able to take pictures of the pearl exhibit, I could sate my desire for pictures of the pretty quite easily in the main exhibit halls), tiles, carpets, textiles, armor and more. There’s some stunningly beautiful stuff to see.

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a trip to Al Zubara and a friendly match between Brazil and Argentina

Al Zubara

A few weekends ago, we took a drive to the northwest coast of Qatar. There is an old (now abandoned) township there called Al Zubara, and a not-so-old (but also abandoned) fort by the same name. The fort was awesome in the way that forts are, and wow, is there a whole lot of nothing out there between Doha and the aforementioned fort. The (very) few towns we saw on the way there are little more than a handful of buildings, appearing suddenly and passed before I could snap a photo.

Much to my amusement, the road that takes you to Al Zubara is called Route 1 (which, by the way, literally ends when you get to Al Zubara), and the smaller, more coastal road that runs part of the way is 1-A. If you live in or have driven through any part of the Eastern seaboard in the States, you know why I think this is funny; if you don’t know that area, it’s because Route 1 runs for miles and miles (and miles) alongside the coast from Maine all the way to Florida, with Route 1-A a more coastal alternative in several areas. I have a well-established tendency to get hopelessly lost while driving, so I was delighted to see familiar route numbers, even if they were 6000 miles away from the ones I knew.

While we were out in the desert we saw camels (“the free range kind,” Jerry quipped); one particular caravan was near the road, and we stopped to watch them for a little while. (I had to look up the word for ‘group of camels’ and though there are alternatives, I liked ‘caravan’ better than ‘flock’ or ‘train’. (Flock? A flock of camels? I think not.)) They were completely unperturbed, continuing to munch contentedly on the scrubby weed growth, and they were perfectly happy to be photographed.

Brazil v. Argentina

Even though I don’t know a ton about soccer football, I am certainly aware of its immense world popularity, and this past Wednesday, Doha hosted a friendship match between world class FIFA rivals Brazil and Argentina right here at Khalifa Stadium.

We were lucky enough to get tickets and the game was superb entertainment; it’s always a treat to watch the best in the world do what it is they’re best at, and seeing it live just added to the experience. I’m still blown away.

For those of you who are interested in such things, Brazil’s Ronaldinho was back in the lineup for the first time in some months, and holy cow is he good. Argentina superstar Messi was absolutely incredible (and he’s only twenty-three years old?!); he played the entire game and he scored the only goal of the night (unassisted, no less) with seconds left to play. It was beautiful: he took the ball in from just inside midfield, evading every single defense player like they weren’t even there. Argentina has lost to Brazil the last five times they’ve played, so this win was especially sweet, and understandably the cause of some serious celebration by team Argentina.

I took lots of photos, a few of which actually turned out. 🙂

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