Qatar is not a tropical fruit. It’s not a musical instrument, and it has nothing to do with sewage systems. And if you take into account how active the country is these days in international affairs, education, the organization of conferences and international sporting events, it is truly shameful that not more people have heard of it. Still, before I went, so many people wished me good luck in Dubai, that I named my Qatar-blog “Not In Dubai”.
I knew Qatar, not so much through study, but because my upcoming year there would be the reviving of a childhood living experience in Qatar, some twenty years earlier. However, before I left, I did not expect much of the country. The first delegation of students to the Qatar Program had not had an easy time. And if people hardly knew that the country existed, it could by far be not as fun and vibrant as Washington, DC.
I was proven wrong. During my year in Qatar, I met the most wonderful people of various nationalities and was in my apartment way too little because I was often off in the city somewhere. And yes, I also learned a lot of Arabic…more than during any previous experience in the region.
Qatar University is a place that arouses contradictory feelings. The university is among the most conservative institutions of the country, and at times that caused friction–-even though it was fun to parade around in the black ‘abaya (the women’s gown) for a while. As long as that experience is temporary, it makes you feel more as if you’re walking around in a Matrix movie than anything else–-especially when combined with big, flashy sunglasses. But a very positive thing about QU was the large degree of flexibility when it came to class choices. Despite occasional fusses about visitors and dress codes, I appreciated that I could take basically any Arabic class, and that my own proposal for a voluntary study project was accepted.
After school, there was the cultural life in Doha, which is not mainly about having drinks and dancing, but was largely colored by visits to friends and literary events. Social life in Doha works much like the shell of that pearl which has for centuries been so important to the region’s economy. To the one who speaks Arabic, it opens up like Ali Baba’s treasure cave; to one who doesn’t, it remains closed. While for business and just to get around, English may be as least as useful, Arabic is the key to integration in the Qatari society and the explanation for the worn-out expatriates complaints that there is nothing to do in the city. The Arabic student will find poetry evenings and conferences on basically any subject; the large book fair in December (every good Lit student’s candy store); free sporting events, this year including the Asian Games; the celebrations after Ramadan, for the first and second ‘Eid. And there’s always the beaches and decorative resorts, or 4WD-racing in the dunes from about half an hour south of the capital all the way down to the gorgeous Khor al-Adeid, that curious inflow of water far into the yellowest, most fine-sanded dunes-–sponge cake to dive into.
Doha has its up and down months. At set times, either a herd of expatriates or the Qataris themselves leave the country and the pace of life and work slows down, and those have been my months of cocooning. One should maybe travel during those times, or enjoy a rare time of rest, and read all those books that had been lying around. The restaurants are open all-year round, and Doha has an enjoyable scene in that regard. A glass of wine becomes an uncommon treat as it is only served in the hotels, which are without exception, luxurious, turning your regular bottle into an item mainly for special occasions.
The best part of my year was meeting the people I did. As the different communities in Qatar (Qataris; Western, Arabic and Eastern expatriates; and South East Asian laborers) generally don’t mingle, it is something very special to be invited to a Qatari home, sit with the women there, and enjoy their dinner with them. I got a grasp of what that feminine niche means to local women–that girls-only world which many of them treasure as an environment in which they can be themselves more than with any man. But I was able to compare their scene with more open, outgoing Arab communities made up of Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians and others. Those communities’ social life is situated much more outside the house, and consisted among others of long nights of discussion and poetry recitations somewhere in a local cafe, and of weekly cooking and chatting sessions livened up by many jumpy kids, all of whom started imitating the polished, curious Standard Arabic of “Khala (Auntie) Kati”.
Would I recommend Qatar and the Program at Qatar University? Yes. Life there, with its discoveries, as well as the study, can be really enjoyable. But as with any experience anywhere, one mainly has to commit to making the very best out of it. Living in Qatar is a thing in itself and should not be compared to life in the US. Doha becomes the most enjoyable if one leaves his/her regular framework of reference behind and stops thinking of how people, houses, foods and night life are at home. Acceptance of the new environment with its very own features is the only way to really enjoy it. That, and an active, creative attitude. There are no events calendars to be shoved under your nose; you have to keep your feelers out yourself if you want to know what’s going on.
If I evaluate my year in Qatar, it has been enriching for me academically, professionally, linguistically and personally. I do have the feeling now that I know the country to a certain depth, and most of all, that there’s people there waiting for me to come back. To chat and smoke shishas with them, drink lemon-mint cocktails, order hummus from that one mythical place in town, take a nightly walk over the Corniche, and dive away during weekends in some gloriously blue, very salty water.