Time At the Bar

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Yup that is a toilet!

Someone told me yesterday I looked younger than when I was in Doha. I believe that to be true. While work there was easy, life itself I found was depressing bringing me back to MattP’s very first words in Doha….‘it’s not a place for a single person.’ I aged mentally.

I’ve been away from this blog for a while. Somehow my mind and body have been fulfilled but now I’ve got too much time again and I need to start making decisions  about what’s going on next. I got into Leiden if you didn’t know to study from February 2015. I’m working 9 weeks at Oxford University, generally keeping my head above water and out of the bar. I’ve had visitors in the forms of Pedro and Olivia. I caught up with Jorden, Tomek and Catherine and Andy Carlin yesterday. This month promises more friends. You could say I am satisfied.

Being satisfied was never enough for me. I’ve always strived to push on and see and do more. I’m ungrateful, almost mistrustful of what I have. Patience is never a virtue I have or sought. But I get the feeling that driving impulse is fading within me. There are now things that I want that require time, thought planning and sacrifice. University or another career are such examples. There are people I want to spend more time with. This requires the kind of patience I’ll search out for. There is a network of not rarely-seen but greatly appreciated others but a new community to be created, a grouping to give me what I’ve always forcibly removed myself from.

I am thinking about a place to be. A person to be with. A legacy to set. This is not to all garnered at once. I am not trying to get married here. But I do wish for  some stability and to develop some project with someone. I want to invest in them and myself and find a worthy reason beyond hedonism and mirth to be grateful for all I’ve seen and felt. Doha might not be at an end. I’d just have to do it right next time.

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February

Photo1784February is always a short month , usually packed with atrocious weather and broken new year promises. However this February was especially quick. I’m not sure exactly why but being busy with work and outside projects brings a feeling of contentment or possibly just distraction. And all this is times of no drinking. Drinking here is a distraction. As you get older the hangovers get worse for most. For me it’s more the case that a hangover creates a vacuum in your head, an inability to formulate or think inventively to smooth the path through it all. Alongside being in Qatar this is truly problematic.

IMG_20140208_144906But I’ve been distracted. The big event was the British Council Away Day last week. I was on the organising committee with three others and together we organised a day at a desert museum, some team building, get to know you activities, sports and an information treasure hunt. We held it at Sheikh Faisal’s Museum in the middle of the country, a country so small it was still only 30 minutes from the office.

Sheikh Faisal is one of the richest men in the country and spends his money buying artifact, old and new, from around the world. These include old Korans and Bibles, cars older than 100 years, weapons and clothes. It’s a very random hodge-potch of things housed in his every expanding museum. It’s presently building an extension to house some more of his 600 cars!

12763_10152251115935170_68950059_nThe next night we finally headed out to the desert for a desert safari. A group of 9 dune-bashed, bbq’d swam in the ocean and played silly games before sleeping in large tents. The dunes are unique here. They sit next to the Persian Gulf right on the sea front. As the sun set over them, it was all very pretty.

The final contract with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has begun again. I’m happy with it. The group is much more motivated and capable than the last lot. I can actually aspire to recommending most of them to go work abroad. I hope I’m not speaking too soon but they are a nice, hard-working bunch. I’m also working with a luxury company and a private school training staff.

Outside of work, we’ve been busy watching rugby, running and exercising and eat some more sushi. The England v Ireland game was immense for it’s levels of commitment, positive play and tension. Two good team without any poor performances.

The lady I am helping with her academic research is making some real progress and will hopefully be accepted for a scholarship. The reading has merged into my thinking. Ideas over collective memory are becoming increasingly interesting and the state’s use of public memory in the building and maintenance of nationalism. I’ve incorporated it into my personal statement for university.

Japanese lessons continue unabated and now have a practical purpose. For the first time in over 11 years, I’m going back to Japan and Korea after over 8 years. I’ll be seeing Liz, Scotto, Mayu, Yumi, Dan, Nev and a few others.

Time is Marching on. (ba-da-dum)

What I’ve Loved

Now that I’ve handed in my resignation, here are what I’ve loved or maybe just liked about living in the Middle East in general and Qatar in particular.

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1. Cultural Diversity

I sat eating sushi the other night with an American lawyer, a Syrian couple, a Canadian teacher and Nancy from Lebanon. Qatar may be limited in many ways but the cultural diversity in the country does lend it an interesting edge. This is especially reflected in food where restaurants of every cuisine can be found. My personal favourite is KFC. No, no I mean either the Pakistani or the Korean restaurant. With all the on-going strife I’ve worked with 10s of nationalities. There are 7 alone in that picture above. And you know what, they are mostly like me and you.

2.There is no crime, well almost

Well yes apart from the murder of an English teacher and the odd other murder, hushed up rapidly by the media, there is very little. Ask why Qatar has only executed one person in 10 years and the answer is they send them to Saudi Arabia to do it. That’s media management for you. But leave your laptop in the car and no one will smash the window to grab it.

3. Time to study

What I’ve noticed amongst colleagues is the amount of study that goes on. The Gulf is a stop-gap for many. An opportunity to gather cash and spend your free time studying for higher education. While I read only a little last year, I am back on it now and also my Japanese and Spanish study. This is linked to the lack of social life. And is time good for a restless mind?

4. Cheap taxis everywhere

Taxis are cheap here. I don’t think I have spent more than 6 pounds getting around. They are also everywhere. However the flip side is they can be incredibly annoying. There are many familiar tricks but it gets demoralising after a while.

IMG_20140102_1723245. Cheap sporting events

As stated in the sporting blog, Qatar subsidising every sporting event. The Qatar Super League is rumoured to lose $100m pounds a month as it pays out for players and facilities and yet has almost no audience. That means events are very cheap to come by, essentially free.

6. No real hassle

I’ve had no administrative problems here. My apartment is provided, hassles such as the aircon dripping were dealt with quickly. I get driven to work. I can walk to the office. Of course what this means is someone else deals with it.

7. Easy to get to immigrant countries

Qatar isn’t quite as well-connected as Dubai but it remains very cheap to get to migrant countries. Flights to Nepal or Sri Lanka were less than 170pounds return. Bargain!

8. Salary/no rent/no tax

That’s right and that of course is the main reason people come to Qatar. You save as much as you earn.

9. The locals

Qataris themselves, especially the adults are very nice and hospitable. They are generous and kind and willing to help. We do live parallel lives, rarely interacting but when you do meet them, they tend to be a touch wary but soon warm up. However formal generosity and friendship are very different things in my opinion. This is only true if they are not in a Land Cruiser.

IMG_20140109_16325610. Stuff you see nowhere else. Camel racing, camping out in the desert. Falconry. Shooting stuff. Sand dunes. It’s worth it once.

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11. The Rules Don’t Matter

Visit the Damien Hirst exhibit and see the signs saying No Photos? No problem. Buy cheap tickets for the tennis and walk into the expensive seats? No problem. Need to take a shortcut down a one-way street? No problem. Need some medicine without a prescription? No problem.

12. Opening times

Due to the weather and the times of prayer everything is open in the morning and until 10pm in the evening. Its only the afternoon that’s the issue.

PANO_20130208_16254813. T-shirts and sunglasses all the time

It’s nice in the morning to throw on some shorts and a t-shirt and wander to the shop. It becomes such a habit that a cold wind coming from the Persian Gulf is a genuine shock to the system. The weather is often cited as a reason to live in the Gulf but to be honest, 4/5 months of the year it is unbearably hot. The rest of the time it varies between warm and hot. Just as long as you can deal with the panda eyes.

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.

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.

Beach Football World Cup Qualifiers

2013-01-22 09-25-37-063I went to the WC beach football qualifiers here last week. Beach football is usually garbage but being sat with 200 Afghans as they trashed Qatar 7-3 with their goalkeeper making a string of fantastic saves and then scoring on the counterattack was brilliant. The Afghans who do the poorest jobs were great fun. They were smiling, had drums and danced and cheered. Plus if you know anything about Afghanistan, you’ll know how diverse they are ethnically and that really showed in the crowd.

The previous game brought out the local Thais and Japanese as their nations dueled to a 4-1 Japanese win. The Japanese are good at this, twice winners in the past but this time their hopes seems to rest on the 6-4 African guy who played at the back! The Qataris themselves were embarrassing in their lack of support for their team.

IMG_20130126_215410_0I went back with friends here for the finals. The UAE controversially beat Australia (who scored an equaliser a  second after the final whistle). The UAE spent a significant amount of their time rolling around on the sand too. The final brought together Japan and Iran and its fairly raucous fans. Iran used their size advantage to bully the Japanese but simply couldn’t get past the best player in the tournament, a lanky, black ‘Japanese’ guy called Ozu. Japan led throughout until the last few minutes when Iran scored 3 quick goals to equal it up. It went to penalties and Iran kept their nerve. The best team beat the best player who tired after leading the whole team and never being subbed.

The top 3 team went through to the World Cup beach football tournament in……Taihiti. I am in the wrong business. Great nights of football and cultural experiences.