Ah yeah and I’ve got a tan!

IMG_20130215_213425So I am writing to you from bed. Before I fly back to London tonight for my sister’s wedding and then onto Nepal for some mountains, colour and paragliding, I thought I’d update you and possibly myself on what’s happened of late. Its been a very active few months since Sri Lanka. I’m aware I haven’t written about Sri Lanka yet. I don’t know why. I’ll get around to it. When I don’t know.

Work here continues to resemble a potential bull in the china shop with the constant joke it may all fall apart. Every week something new appears which previously wasn’t considered a problem. I’ve got over discussing or arguing over it. It’s just the standard modus operandi of the business and the country. It’s a snufu kind of place. Agreements are never confirmed and yet flexibility isn’t an option. There are only confirmed once the big guys who frankly know nothing about it share tea together. Then its all on. Until its not.You just have to go with the now and don’t expect anything better.

And yet the knowledge that something previously not an issue will become one gives the place a surrealist tone my sense of humour appreciates. Meetings and agreements cancelled on a whim allow me to go into one of the VIP rooms and use a huge EWB to study. Or watch YouTube or Family Guy. I spend the afternoon studying, downloading, reading or planning my holidays.

Initiative is also not expected or encouraged. Revealing yourself to be willing flashes ‘sucker,’ someone  to be exploited and it’s only met by curious looks from your fellow workers who believe stepping beyond your role is puzzling. Ask them what their role is and they’ll let their eyes wonder, purse their lips and giggle. Further, confidence is admired so its easy to ‘wing’ it if you have experience.

Outside of work, life is flourishing. I’ve got a diverse group of friends. Every Saturday I play football, the first time I’ve played consistently in years. Champions bar is just down the road, often packed and full of screen to watch sport. The complex has a gym here which is pretty empty in the morning. I don’t usually go into work until midday so I’ve got time in the morning. That pool makes me smile.

I’ve had time to write much-needed long emails to old friends, caught up on Skype with others and bought and sent gifts around the world. Distance gives you some perspective to review the past and plan the future. And with the internet and my free phone, I can concern myself with others, helping them out if I can and sharing the knowledge grafted from mistakes or long years of travel. Or just simply discussing music or ideas. Communications should be win-win.

We’ve been to the beach football, the cycling tour of Qatar, Spain vs Uruguay and the men and women’s singles tennis. I was on TV at the tennis, giving my usual irreverent response during a Serena Williams match and met Mark Cavendish at the awards ceremony. Last week I was interviewed for the newspaper on writing and blogging about countries making the front page. I’ve been reading about the Middle East, a book Stu lent me. The very recent colonial, Cold War, land and resources issues of this area are reflected in any of its present trials.

I’ve finally started my research again. With Dhyan, the Nepalese janitor, we went down to old Doha and interviewed 40 Nepalese men. My friend’s friend had translated the survey into Nepalese language and Dhyan introduced himself to the men and helped them through the survey. His help was invaluable. I took him to a Nepalese restaurant later and we had mou-mou, a dish that reminds me of gyoza, mandu or peirogi. I have the Sri Lankan translation to come from my friend Priyanga and Anne generously translated the Indonesian survey. Next month after this trip, I’ll get onto those. At the same time, I’m doing a MOOC through the University of Amsterdam in Communication Science. That’s where the VIP rooms and big screen TVs come in especially useful!

Beyond Nepal, there is the Diamond League athletics, free tickets to Al-Saad, the national football champion’s last game and the British Council festival here. Then there’s the long summer holidays, seeing old friends, music festivals and hopefully the Caucasus Mountains, Iran and some Eastern Europe. There are further complications as per usual but I’ll keep them quiet until they reach more of a boil.

For now the rolling hills of England await. I am looking forward to the train ride through those hedged and roughly manicured fields. I’ll meet old friends and later my extended family for sister’s wedding and then a flight to the highest country on Earth. Can’t be bad eh?

Dan and the Women

IMG_20121123_132628I’d like to tell you quickly about a short but significant incident last week. While walking back from the old town along the Corniche, I cut around the road to shortcut back to my flat. As a reached a small junction, a sole car came towards me. It slowed to a halt and the back window rolled electronically down. There a woman in a black abaya and sunglasses called over to me and asked where Ezdan Towers. I smiled and pointed. It was a few hundred metres away (as the crow flies). She asked me how you could get there. I replied ‘I lived there and am going there right now’. She immediately asked me to get in to direct them.

This is a rare situation here. In the car was the Indian driver who said nothing. On the backseat was the woman in her late 20s, her baby in a chair and her mother. Having asked around the office since, no one I know has had such close contact with locals. We spend a lot of time in formal situations at work with Qatari women and will see them wandering around the shopping centres but mostly your contact is with men here. Women tend to shy away from close encounters, covering themselves or simply vanishing. The division between men and women exists within Qatari society too but not so within family. It is therefore fortunate Qatari extended families tend to be very large!

Back to the story. I asked the woman if she was sure? She replied yes, yes please. We are going to a wedding. Again weddings are separate affairs. The men and the women have separate parties. The men’s parties are held in traditional tents and tend to involve singing, dancing, clapping, very loud music and a lot of handshaking. After that, there’s a quick meal and that’s it. The women’s parties are held in hotels and are far more expensive than the men’s parties.

I walked around the car and got in the passenger seat and begun to direct the silent Indian driver to the towers. It didn’t take long to get there. I was asked how long I’d been here, what I did and some other general questions. I looked round and answered nervously. I am not normally nervous. I’ve spoken in front of large groups at universities without planning but yet here I was with two women covered in a black garment and only their faces visible. I didn’t know where to look and for how long.

You quickly start to learn the cultural expectations of a country. Its respectful but also slightly infectious. Years after Japan, I still accept money or business cards with two hands, still slightly bow my head and never use an aggressive hand gesture to beckon someone. Some foreigners take it too far, exaggerating their body language and/or mannerisms to fairly comic effect.

Its kind of pleasing to be made to think of what is the right way to act. Too often cultural ignorance (or imperialists) believe their ways are the better ways of doing it or there is a belief that because of globalisation and particularly the dominance of English in international media and business, we simply need to learn less. They adapt to us. Or ‘we’ll all’ come to an acceptance that formalities don’t matter less.

But cultural difference, the understanding and appreciation of it actually matter more these days. The recognition of identity embodied in culture is of paramount importance. The majority of recent conflicts from Bosnia to Iraq, East Turkey, Rwanda and now Syria all fissure along cultural and ethical lines. While conflicts are complex and antagonistic, recognition of the need for recognition remains at the core of peace resolutions. It would be better not have to say that in hindsight.

Before Sunrise

The film Before Sunrise is one of my favourites of recent times. It’s difficult to say its ‘that good,’ just more that it connects with me and my lifestyle over the past 10 years.

The two characters meet on a train and decide to spend their only day together. They wander round the city, talk about nothing much but are far more open than they would be, knowing they may never meet again. That openness breeds warmth and by the end of the night they want to see each other again, making frantic plans on the train platform. As they go their separate ways, they both smile at what’s occurred, knowing the risk they took was worth it.

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I’ve had many of these experiences and indeed they are a fundamental of the travelling experience. By this of course I don’t mean travelling with your family or partner but an actual new experience whereby you need to stretch and look around to find what often sits directly in front of you. The list of those I’ve met and quickly appreciated is endless.

We often say our best friends are at home, those who know us best but it doesn’t take long to meet a particular person in particular circumstances and in particular mood. You hit it off immediately. The particulars are in fact just your mindset. It’s a sliding doors scenario for sure. You could have been somewhere else or looking in a different direction. The perverse, fleeting conditionality is extreme.

But these chances encounters are all we have. A small change in your perception and you are somewhere else. Those you’ve known for a long time are the product of many, small decisions often not taken by yourself. Stepping into the void instantaneously are new faces, new opportunities at interaction and belonging. The losses are immediately potentially evened out.

The smile shared by the two characters in Before Sunrise (who took their chance and lived to nostalgise about it when they returned home) reminds me of much. You can only regret the decisions you didn’t make, the opportunities you didn’t take. Yet with the endless opportunities within our limited time, it’s a course I’m glad I’ve pursued. We’ll all see the sunset. I’m just glad I’ve seen the sunrise a few times too.

PS. The sequel Before Sunset concerning their random meeting many years later is equally full of warmth and tinged with nostalgia.

At the Manager’s Trough

250px-Guus_Hiddink_2012Guus Hiddink is the manager/coach (whatever the term is) of Anzhi Makhachkala, the club from Dagestan. It was founded in 1991 after the fall of the Soveit Union and is owned by a billionaire who’s pumped millions into the club. They are perhaps most famous for paying Samuel Eto’o around $400,000 a week to play for them. They also bought Willian, one of the world’s best young players from Shakhtar Donetsk recently.

Due to the security climate in the Caucasus mountain republic, Anzhi train and play in Moscow and this week it’s the second leg of their tie with Newcastle. The first tie in Moscow was pretty dire and ended 0-0 which was about the right result. The 5,000 crowd was pretty pathetic despite the cold weather.

I’m deliberately writing this before the game so there can be no accusations of any possible sour grapes. I actually think we should win this game and so Hiddink will continue managing on the fringe of Europe, geographically and figuratively. he is after all one of the premier managers in the game and along with Eto’o, one of the games great strikers, I am a little disappointed by his absence from the mainstream.

He may argue its a great challenge to take and mold a new club.  And of course Anzhi should be able to leapfrog to the front like many other clubs in recent times. Manchester City and Chelsea are two very recent examples in England and a decade before Newcastle United saw a huge injection of cash to take them to the top of the league. Its nothing new either. Some of Europe’s greatest clubs have benefitted from the same expenditure.

But more generally clubs grew because they had a fan base behind them. Attendance was a big factor in the budget of the club. The club was the talk of the town and Saturday afternoons were full of apprehension, excitement, joy or sorrow. Anzhi due to obvious factors don’t play at ‘home’ and Hiddink hears distant cries as his team scores. 

toon_2503802bWhile I wish  Anzhi well, hope stability comes to the land and the locals get to see their own club play before them, Hiddink will be sat there last Tuesday in his lavish Moscow apartment watching Barcelona attempt to overturn AC Milan (and Manchester United and Real Madrid battle it out last week) with a sense of lost opportunity.

Hiddink is a respected manager and tactician for the biggest of stages. In reality, he is being paid a fortune to take a job which bizarrely never requires going to Dagestan and involves playing in huge stadiums to sparse crowds. After his exploits with PSV, the Dutch national team, South Korea and Russia, Hiddink is already a wealthy man and at the top of his game. He’s buffing up his pension while the rest of world football is busy looking elsewhere.

Kenyan Elections 2013

n802025563_2298957_2857Kenya is voting today in the first national elections since the 2007 elections resulted in huge bloodshed over disputed results. While it seems normal for opposition leaders to call election fraud, in Kenya, the results were clearly irregular.

I was in Kenya in 2007 with Alex and we watched with the hostel staff in Nairobi the hustings for the elections. The chatter and gesticulating portrayed the excitement of the people. They listened, debated, cracked jokes and slapped knees and wrung shoulders. This election was going to change the country. The old elite, still hanging on and carving up the country would face the the voice and power of the people. Sitting there we smiled and raised beers to them. It was a positive, exciting time.

The election results were carefully rigged to maintain the power of the large Kikuyu tribe headed by Mwai Kibaki. In 2007, he won the national elections by 230,000 votes over Raila Odinga despite Odinga being predicted to win almost all the provinces. International observers confirmed the massive irregularities across the whole spectrum. Demonstrations became protests and quickly erupted into violence when the police intervened, shooting dead the protesters. Targeted ethnic attacks from ODM supporters culminated in the murder of 30 civilians.

The Kikuyus have dominated the country since independence, maintaining political hegemony through patronage and dubious land deals in the North. They are approximately 25% of the country but established control after Jomo Kenyatta achieved independence from the British in 1963. In short, the ethnic tensions in yet another patched up, colonial state continue. Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Jomo is bidding for the Presidency this time. Kenyatta is wanted by the ICC of human rights violations linked to 2007.

n802025563_2298958_3179Patronage and ownership of the land is the big issue in many states. The hierarchy is deeply cultural. Deferring to leadership and gaining the rewards is an ingrained facet of many cultures. Let’s hope this time the reward is an honest result, respected by all and maintained by leaders worthy of the optimism of a nation forever on the cusp of real progress.

City on the Make

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Doha is really on the make. The sound of construction 6 days a week rings over the city. Towers and apartment blocks are changing the face of the city on a monthly basis. The ding of metal on metal, the whirl of cranes and the drills can be heard as a constant over the other constant, traffic.

These towers are completely unlike what Qatar experienced before. Across the city the highest ‘old’ landmarks are a mere 4 storeys high. Below the towers are the wide roads, the odd shopping centre and yet more construction. Cafes exist next to the water (about 200m from my place) but the little have generally made room for the big boys.

Unlike Dubai, construction here is primarily financed by foreign investors and Qatar itself. It doesn’t have the same cowboy casino attitude to property and investment. It has more money than it can deal with but with some common sense, the money is being invested in infra-structure, education and health. The World Cup infrastructure programme is a sign of Qatari forward-thinking. The train network linking the stadiums is being built by a German company. Smartly Qatar bought a 25% stake in the company before awarding the contract. They are essentially paying themselves to do the construction.

Infrastructure is a major success story. The condition of the roads and the basic lack of them tells you much about how Qatar looked 30 years ago. The prevalence of Toyota Land Cruisers is not just as signal of wealth or the wish to escape to the desert but would have been a practical necessity. Qatari guys like their wheels too. In lieu of actually playing sport (more about that later) and drinking (cough, cough), Qatari men spend their time racing around, cruising out to the desert and having barbecues or going fishing. Qatari women can drive but generally get ‘the Indian’ to do it (more about them later too).

All of these impressive facilities provides great opportunities for Qataris but it is a case of putting the cart before the horse. They appear slightly unready to really push themselves. The idea is for Qataris to take up 50% of position within the economy but that’s fantasy land. They are not ready or willing. The drag from previous times creates  great inertia but equally most jobs are labour-intensive or skill-intensive so why bother? Basic computing and arithmetic skills are lacking. For example, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve created email addresses for locals.

Qataris are almost bribed to get into education or take work. Salaries for them are far above the more experienced foreign workers who are mostly from the Asian sub-continent (but not the white engineers) and soon they will lose their position if not their role. It will take another generation before the Qataris are truly ready educationally and psychologically to take over the responsibilities, if ever.

Predictably it is often women who are keener to get educated and broaden their role in society. Qatar is fairly progressive when it comes to women. They do appear occasionally without a headscarf, they do drive and play a major role in education and health policy. The second wife of the Emir, Shieka Moza is a prominent figure in the country, pushing women’s opportunities and roles in society mostly in education as well as making speeches at various international conferences. She is older Grace Kelly of the region! (More about society later)

Anyway, it’s a sunny day as near always. I’m going out for a bit of sun.