I’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.