Love in the Middle East aka I Went to Qatar and My Penis Died

3829_10152178475240602_108634564_n (1)Curiously when living abroad, it is the local mothers who most often say ‘you should find yourself a (insert local nationality) girl.’ Most of the time that’s fair suggestion. But it’s not a line you’re likely hear here. ‘It’s not the place for a single guy mate’ is a more common refrain and one of the first comments I actually heard when I arrived from a married mate Matt. I had previously cracked a joke to another member of staff. It was a Wednesday in November and she said ‘just try and get to Christmas.’ I replied ‘I’m just trying to get to the weekend right now.‘ That previous comment from Matt stayed with me throughout my time in Qatar and accounts for some of my behaviour inside and a hell of a lot of it outside the country.

I’ve been meaning to writing this for a long time, a kind of accompaniment to the Weddings in Qatar blog from a few months back. Time’s been against me. However here I am now. I had a great time writing this. I’m constantly on the verge of laughing, constantly close to slapping myself before the big smile invades my chops. With that I am about to say, how have I managed to stay it out so long? I’ll be asking that very question sat in a pub or on a beach for years to come. The surrealism can only rival my stories from North Korea, the mental asylum in Kiev or that night AC and I realised we were in a Kenyan whorehouse. What happened to those nights?

I’m a fairly balanced individual in many ways but this country has frustrated me in many. Travelling and working abroad look similar and sometimes feel it but they have very different outcomes. Travelling allows you to skip in and out, taking the best, raising a quizzical eye at the odd and avoiding the worse elements. Hey Georgia might be full of bad drivers and some of the most banged up cars in the world but hey, that’s fun. When it becomes part of your everyday existence, it’s more of a ‘ahhh shit, really?’ Most expats moan at some point. But you adapt according the the laws of culture shock, learning to accept what isn’t available or different as a trade-off for the benefits. However trading your social life is frankly too much.

There are simple reasons for it here. The fundamentals in Qatar are the culture and the numbers game. The country is 80% men usually from the sub-continent working in low-paying jobs. The largest minority of women here are the Filipinos who mostly working in the service sector. Chatting a girl up in KFC is not really going to work! The Filipinos also all live together in mass houses. Going to a party there is an odd experience. When you ask who lives here, it’s a deafening, yet harmonious chorus. Filipinos like to sing. Of the rest of the population, they tend to be Arabs or Westerners and Westerners tend to be married. Take a look at the place, the desolation and you understand why.

Most possible relationships here are tricky because they stumble and fail on religious lines. The local population of Qataris is out-of-bounds. Despite the occasional Qatari seen in a nightclub, women are forbidden. There is actually a sign on the door. Meeting Qataris women in any genuine social context is impossible. But then why would you want to? I bumped into a woman the other day and the look of shock on the Qatari men’s face was telling. They were stunned. The other Arab women are closeted in their social grouping or amazingly virgins! I’ll never get that one. Let’s just say this is far from working in Japan.

Then there are the social meeting points like the office, sport, hobbies and nightclubs. I look around the office and the story tells itself. Most of the expat staff are married. Together they can bond and get through it. No sane, individual would hang out in such a restrictive culture for long unless for money. Yet there are plenty of single people here. But then you should look at some of them too! We have one guy in the office who gets nicknamed Warren after the brother in There’s Something About Mary. Others display cat collecting fetishes and forms of autism. The rest simply turn to drink.

Sport and hobbies invite similar people. The couchsurfing group and a lot of the meetups have notices saying this is not for dating. The frequency of couples even make the smallest plans difficult to pull off. Dinner involves a negotiation. Free time is allocated. A lot of people are here to save money and somewhat reluctant to go out. Others have study to do. And then here are the weirdos.

We’ve frequented the nice bars and nightclubs here a few times of late. I am trying to tick off places before I leave. When the 5-star hotels are your greatest landmarks, that’s what I will be ask when people ask me to explain the country. There are some flash, discerning places. They tend to be full of the more out-going of the Middle East, the Lebanese and the Westerners. Lebanese men have a difficult reputation. Despite being far more cosmopolitan than their neighbours, their charm with the ladies is only on display when they are winning. They display the same lack of charm when you talk to fellow Arab women. It becomes an ownership thing.

The nightclubs here also have their fair share of Filipino women, a smaller black African population and a smattering of hookers. Then the Indian men tend to surround anyone on the dance floor despite the best attempts of the bouncers. The clubs themselves are well-set up but differing shades of grey. They come across as high school discos. Inexperienced clubbers acting like school children or that wedding guest no one knows slowly inch towards a dancefloor drowning in bass until boom, Billie Jean comes on and everyone breathes a sense of relief.

One of the biggest social restrictions here is alcohol. You can buy it fine in bars and clubs and at the ONE liqour store conveniently located a billion miles into the desert but outside of a glass of wine or a cold beer on a ridiculous day, I’ve never actually enjoyed drinking in itself. I know. Get that round your head! Now I am not saying it’s a necessity (and I speak as someone who has barely had a drink all year. Yes Mary, that is true) but with the accompanying restrictions on meeting and interacting, it all becomes rather difficult.

All of this produces a kind of social limbo, a malaise, like a tightening round the balls until there is no strength left to hoist a salute. I say this here but the sense of relief, literal and metaphorical once outside the context is unbelievable. I mean truly bunker busting. I look back with great nostalgia at the times in Belgrade with Jan and Levi. God I was happy drinking a beer next to the river, visiting the mountains of Romania and other spots. I am an impatient guy. I like to see sunrises and sunsets. I want it all. But how many nights can I honestly I’ve enjoyed? Those that remain memorable. I count it on one hand. When in Europe over the last summer, I couldn’t help smiling and this continued into the spring. The difference is found in others too. Nancy was far relaxed once abroad. She is bored here but she doesn’t have the same options as I and sees opportunity to make a living while I simply see more strife.

It becomes a struggle to think of something to do outside of the gym. I’ve never been a TV watcher but with 1000+ channels, it’s clearly a mainstay of the Middle East and especially for couples. I’ve never wasted so much time on the internet and all because it is a struggle to find something to do and people to do it with. I enjoy coming into the office, dressed up and using it as an excuse to say ridiculous comments, overstate or overreact. It’s my opportunity to blow off some steam, try out new ideas and parody everything and everyone. Yet outside of the staff, I can’t genuinely say I’ve enjoyed the projects I’ve worked on. They are allegedly prestigious. Look at that gold watch! But what does that matter if you don’t care about who you do it all with. The means and end must be justifiable.

I mentioned Nancy in a previous blog. Without here I’d have died a little faster here. She’s been a little life-saver, going out for dinner, to Sealine, with me going round during Ramadan (the worst time of the year for weather and nothing being open) for the first dinner at dusk. We made the trip over to Malaysia and Cambodia where she proved excellent fun. But it’s not enough when it’s not what you thrive on.

1093975_10153210001390602_911423898_oUltimately life and relationships aren’t about just sex but about synergetic bonding, the feeling of mutual engagement and reciprocity. 2+2=5 and 5 is a lot of fun. The strength that comes with togetherness is a life-long necessity. There is plenty of research that shows touch is the most vital of the five senses. We can survive and live without sight, hearing and taste but without the sense of touch, human and chimpanzee babies (shamefully they’ve done these experiments with chimps) cannot survive. We remain the same.

That closeness and affection is what I am used to from my social network, a close-knit but disparate group where I feel at ease. That ease transposes into all facets of my psychology affecting me more than I knew. A friend here told me if you stay doing something you can’t stand or don’t respect, a part of your heart will die. Well they joke about that part of a men but maybe it’s true. It’s similar to Jan’s ‘rot away’ comment. And yet once I made the step to leave and make myself happier, the tsunami took the roof off.

I’ve been (and I will be) busy over the last few months but it still is what it is. Not the kind of place for a restless soul and especially a single one at that. I like faces and people. I like to have the choice to interact or retreat to my books, gym and study. But like travel, I go to places to see people rather than the sights, the dynamic sociology that built the towers made of mirrors. I can’t say I have never had a good time here. There have been experiences I’ll ever forget. This area of the world is culturally very different and if this was Morocco, Lebanon or Oman and a holiday, you would all love it. And you know what…it’s also not Saudi!

I completed this on Valentine’s Day. Everyone is away and I am barely speaking to someone else. Everyone including myself is somewhere else. I don’t belong here. Few of us do. I am going out for a run and then to play some pool. In a country with such social dysfunction, living a functional, strictly monetary life really strips you of what matters. Take it if you can. The Gulf is always the last resort. Few can and while I’m a hardy traveller, I am not an economic masochist. I miss the genuine warmth that invades my pores and brings us together over and above money, status and a possible house in the country. You know those places get very cold without someone else to warm to. Ironically in a blazing hot country, it can feel pretty cold here.

28978_10150204120975602_7381006_nI’ll be back and reckless for life by May. The Balkans will be my first stop. I’ll be in some Eastern European towns full of squares, tavernas or cafe with you, my facial muscles relaxed appropriately and a smile imbued with optimism and adventure. Some say make hay when the sun shines. Mark Kozelek would sing ‘life is short young man. Get out there and make the best of it while you can.’ I’ll value my bushels in a life lived in joy.

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