Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Whole New World

There is a lot about my world that has changed lately. First and foremost, I packed my bags and moved to Doha, Qatar where my civil-engineer of a husband is working for the Army Corps of Engineers. Second, I'm back in the job market and searching has never seemed so tedious. Finally, after only having spent about two weeks together this entire year we're now up to three weeks. Being the individualists that we are, living together again is requiring some adjusting... but that's not the big story here.

I've never been quite this culture shocked before. Amazed at the differences, yes. But truly surprised? Not until now...

The first night I was here the call to prayer woke me up at about 4:30am. Granted, I had heard the sound before but it gave me the same eerie feeling it had previously. The first time I had heard it was in Guantanamo Bay as I was coming out of the water on Windmill beach just a stones throw from the detention camps. It was about 3:00pm, the sun was still pretty high, there was little to no wind but you could hear the Azan (call to prayer) very clearly. My bikini-clad, red-blooded, American self fully appreciated the irony of being scantily clad on some of the best beach real estate in the world in the midst of the Muslim call to prayer. But the sound still gave me goosebumps.

Since then I've heard Azan five times a day for the past six days and it has become quite commonplace. My husband likens it to hearing the liturgical singing that is done in a lot of Christian churches, particularly the very traditional Lutheran ones I've suggested we attend. It really is fairly similar. Sure, the cadences and language are different but the concepts and the intent both encompass the same things... solemnity, respect and spirituality.

A large number of Americans find the call to prayer as unusual as I used to, some think its a sign of fanaticism. I've had people tell me that they believe only an extremist religion would require the followers to pray five times a day. But the Azan is just a reminder to Muslims that they need to pray, whether it be at that exact moment or not makes no difference. Now, I really enjoy the call to prayer, the song is a nice familiar part of my day and often I take that time to say a little prayer of my own.

There is another axiom of Islam that I'm having a lot more trouble with than I had thought I would.

We all know the women have to be covered. Their varying degrees of cover are decided by their families. Some women are allowed to go out in blue jeans, long sleeves and a head covering while others absolutely must be covered head-to-toe with black fabric, including gloves and shoe-coverings in the same material. I find myself trying to look past the veil over their faces and see if there really is a person in there. With the women who only have to cover their heads, and wear modest clothing, its obvious that they're individuals. They're all on their hot pink cell phones, wearing Louboutin heels, walking up and down the main drag in the Souq like they're trolling for fish. They've got spark to them, they laugh, they're beautiful. But it's the women who walk two steps behind their husband, fully covered, holding a squirming child's hand and not saying a word that bothers me.

Now, I've never been much of a feminist. Yes, I have always wanted to build a career, an impressive resume and be respected for my professional skills but if my husband wants pie with dinner then I'm going to make sure I have all of the ingredients necessary for homemade pie crust and filling and by the way, would you like some coffee with that, honey?

But these women just seem so hidden. No one is, legally, allowed to look at them but they stare to try and discover even a fragment of a figure under the burqas. They shuffle around in small groups, usually with a few small children with them, and seem to come and go like ghosts. I know they're there, they're obviously standing in the grocery line in front of me, but it doesn't seem like there is an actual person there. I know it's just clothing, it is just a few layers of fabric but I feel like there's an entire universe separating myself from these women.

It makes me wish I could do something for them. Introduce myself to them and be a friend. Give them someone or something outside of their sheltered world. But that's not my place. And that's not the way the Middle East works. Partially because I'm stared at and ignored as well.

The other night a man asked if he could use the extra chair that was at our table while William, our neighbor Harry and I were out to dinner. He specifically said, "Sir, would you mind if I used this chair?" and I answered "Oh of course not." But he wouldn't take the chair until a second later when William spoke up and said "Of course". I didn't even notice the man's hesitation until William explained to me that not only was the man definitely not talking to me, he wasn't going to take an answer from me either.

The other thing I'm getting used to is the social hierarchy. The Qataris are at the very top of the food chain. You cannot get any higher in status unless you're a Qatari with "His Highness" or "His Excellency" in front of your name. The second tier? White people. Whether you're American, Australian, British, Canadian or any other variation of White you've got privileges. Privileges that I'm not quite used to. The other day we were in the VIP box at the Racing and Equestrian Center for H.H. the Emir of the State of Qatar's Swords and Trophies Race. I had such a hard time giving orders to the Phillipino girl's waiting on us that I couldn't bring myself to hand the girl my half-empty plate and ask her to take it away because I was done. I wanted to find somewhere, a table or bus-cart or something, to leave it. I didn't just want to hand it over and say, "Oh and could you bring me another mango juice?" (p.s. Not even kidding about the mango juice, it's delicious) I wanted to be the one who was being nice to them, who was treating them like more than the help. But by doing so I was making myself look silly because over here there's still a caste system that is alive and well. Not just well, it's thriving. Everything from public beaches to the Souqs to places of employment works the same way. I can't get a job as a cleaning lady because that is reserved for the Ethiopian or Syrian women, I can't work as a nanny because that's a job (along with waitstaff) for Phillipino women. The public beaches charge 3,500 QR (Qatari Riyal) for 'tickets' to the beach so that the 'riff-raff' can't just come and flood the beaches. Otherwise you would have thousands, literally, of Southeastern Asian men crowding the beaches. William says that they cordon off the malls and lock certain doors so that the day-laborers who go on their day off can only be in certain areas and not bother the rest of the population. The Qataris don't want to be bothered by the help and so the help are all corralled like cattle and that's just the way it works over here.

I think I'm going to continue to grapple with the idea that the only reason I'm given any luxuries or leeway is because I'm white and my husband is a white male. My post-civil rights-movement sensibilities all tell me that this is wrong (we're all humans aren't we?) but it's just the way life is over here... and not just here but in a lot of other places in the world. I guess, no matter how much traveling I've done I'm still astounded at how incredibly naive I can be.

This is my first experience outside of the normal North American travel spheres (Eastern Asia to Western Europe) and I'm going to make the absolute best out of every moment we have here whether its for a year or five. However, that doesn't mean that I'll ever truly assimilate. Keep an eye out for my name in headlines... I can't guarantee there won't be an international incident or two.

Also, yes, I will probably be making Aladdin references from now until the day we move out. You might as well go watch the movie with your kids so will have the same song stuck in your head, too.


In Other News, our house is amazing. We're turning one of the three bedrooms into an office/computer room and the second bedroom will still be a guest room (come visit!). Our bedroom is so great, it's almost like two adults live here. :) We've already gotten to go out and experience so much. This weekend we're going to go camping. I think I'm going to talk William into heading to the Singing Dunes. I've heard they're just beyond belief. Finally, we have a MagicJack now so once the internet is a bit more consistent I'll be sure to make some calls!

Weather in Doha today: High of 84, 57% humidity. Low of 73, 55% humidity. Slightly overcast.

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