Movies of that last decade 2010–20

  1. Get Out — I never read film review or watch trailers. But I’ll glance at the rating to get an idea. I want an immersive story. Get Out has it all; it’s funny, its social commentary is revealing and the twists are unseen. You walk out smiling with amazement.
  2. The Social Network — a brilliant character study of a smart coward which he continues to be.
  3. Departures — while this Japanese movie is from 2008, I saw it in 2011/12 and it elucidates a confused area in Japan. Ancestors are revered there with little shrines on the mantelpiece, but those who deal with death, undertakers and morticians, are considered to be practising a dark art. Their actions are respected, but not envied. Undertakers are part of the burakumin in Japan, an underclass that is still discriminated against. Working as one is considered unclean. The movie which is hilarious, wondrous and sad in equal measure, is a must watch if you want to understand Japan beyond Hello Kitty.
  4. The Act of Killing — an award winning documentary about the pogroms in Indonesia in the mid 1960s’. Like Departures, the silences tell you more about Indonesia than is possible from the brusque and delusional interviews with the perpetrators. It’s dark history but fascinating to watch telling you much about the complex Indonesia.

Gucci Education

I’ve been helping a woman here with her diploma course at a UK university here in Qatar. She is studying to get on an MA course. Most of the readings come from critical theory, ideas of Anderson, Hobsbawn, collective memory and the occasional Foucault…sigh! She is studying hard but these texts are complex. English isn’t her first language and so naturally she is finding it difficult to comprehend. So we both read the texts and then I clarify her understanding. I enjoy the reading. She does all the writing. I don’t see any of it but hear she is getting good marks at times.

To get on the MA course with a scholarship, she needs to be recommended by the tutors. There are 3 scholarships and 5 students. You would think her odds are good. But the odds are in fact stacked against her. I’ve just heard two of the students haven’t written a word of they are handing in. Someone else does the reading, gives the student their seminar notes and writes the essays including the mini-dissertation for them. This is a common occurrence here. This is Gucci Education.

About a year ago, I was speaking to an employee of a gas company here. She informed me how university was very hard here. She had a lot of work to do she told me. I looked at her quizzically. After all I heard plenty of stories informing me of the corruption within the university sector. I’ve also met employees of the big, prestigious companies in Qatar and have come to the conclusion with the help of numerous examples, they are not up to task. Similar to the white foreigners in the Gulf, they are fairly substandard.

But this woman insisted it was far more difficult to pass here than friends who studied at international universities abroad. I enquired why. She told me her friend was studying at Virginia Tech in the US, a well-known university but found it very easy. Here she had to study and write in Arabic and found it difficult. Whereas in the US, her friend simply got someone else to write the essays. Her morality was perverse. The fact was she couldn’t cheat and so her friend was fortunate. If she could, she would. After all it’s Gucci education.

My old boss here was a professor at a non-accredited university in London. A quick search for his name on ratemyprofessor.com reveals the students only believed he was interested in money and female students. ‘Give him some money and you’ll pass’ is one comment. His sponsor here, a Qatari, has a Masters from the UK curiously the same non-accredited university as my old boss. A Masters involves a 15,000 to 20,000 word essay. Having met him, his English was exhausted after saying ‘you like Qatar?’ He never wrote a word of it. Yet he has a Master certificate accredited through Open University.

This is not unique to Qatar, the Gulf or anywhere else. Chinese students in the UK are known to do the same thing. But education here is very much about the destination rather than the journey. The pursuit of knowledge and understanding seems to be tiresome and time-consuming. I’ve seen the same approach in the work place and IELTS. Students simply take the test again and again instead of spending the time to improve. The number of times I’ve heard from people they need to prepare and pass an IELTS exam in the very near future (weeks, days or in one case 4 hours!) substantiate these conclusions.

It’s a conciliatory effort (or uneffort) in many cultures. When a mistake is made, sometimes costing considerable sums, there are few consequences. We just continue as if nothing happened. This depends where you are on the hierarchy. Those not in favour mostly for race but linked to status are more disposable.

The term Gucci Education comes from the status acquired by this accomplishment. A PhD or Masters should be acclaimed. They take work, considered thought and hopefully lead to connsilence. However here its too often all about the certificates, the status accrued from a certificate rather than the education gained. The certificate gets you the  prestigious job. Once you have it, it’s job done and now really time to sit back. That certificate can sit alongside the Bentley, gold watch and Chanel handbags. ‘We can all be justifiably proud of ourselves now.’

The real tragedy is for the people who do spend months and years working hard to read for and write their thesis. They still make up the majority here amongst Qataris but not as much as they should. If you are given the money and know a short-cut, it’s very tempting. It is at least credible of the government that they require an education of sorts to get prestigious jobs even if it might be achieved by fraudulent means. I have as well met some very capable Qataris in good positions who never went to university.

As anyone who’s started out on a project, academic or not, will testify your research and work often end up somewhere completely different to where you envisage at the start. The journey of discovery to that final destination is complex and frustrating (and very occasionally soul-destroying!) but it serves a purpose in ameliorating your critical skills, an appreciation of hard-work and a sense of justifiable pride.

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.

Brazil

In my travelling days I’ve never had the pleasure of the infamous Delhi Belly until last week. I had it on the flight over which was a shame as the airline here had possibly the fairest female crew I’ve ever seen. The sight of me making faces trying to keep my guts in meant I didn’t get a refill of beer. But as I slept on the Indian reservation, it returned and I dashed from the hammock to the toilet, designed by worst enemy and cleaned by his best friend, to pour everything I had out. It never happens just once and on my second trip to the darkened place, I realised I was travelling again and smiled.The boy is in Brazil and just came back from 6 days on a remote Indian reservation. Interesting stuff, far off the tourist track, a wooded land with a plain in the middle haphazardly inhabited by concrete block houses and locals sitting on doorsteps. It’s poor but good tourism. I say that like a cynic. Alas I am one here. The job is in fact just tourism. We do little but play with the kids. Being a kid again is great, but I don’t bounce like before and busted my foot.To get there, we drove through pot filled roads into a storm at night, waded through water waist high to meet a silent Indian with a huge knife who paddled us up river to the reservation. There is where the cow, horse and snake roam.The houses are mere partial shelters, the kids friendly and curious. Adults are respectful but look at us with ambivalence at best. With no phones, Playstations or drugs to take, they rely on the old games of playing football, chasing and beating each other up.The chief is a woman and the Indians do little outside of life chores beyond, but hunt, drink and play music loud. The signs of poverty and deprivations are everywhere. They are desperately poor and we did little to help for reasons which will be explained later. On the excursion was Michelle, a girl from London, myself and an ageing Scot called Ian, and the project leader, Steve. Arriving there you find he has little interest in teaching, or constructive help and so we just messed around and me and Michelle try and teach a bit. We were due to go to the reservation again next week for the tribe birthday party but that couldn’t happen. This pregnancy has brought tensions to the reservation and we aren’t too welcome.Volunteer projects can be very hit and miss and this one forgot its dart. The head teacher here is a non-communicator which is predictably to the detriment of his education craft and importantly, his students. It’s already led to two stand-up rows with two other teachers. I’ve generally stayed out of it so far though I did state there is a lack of clear structure here. Once arguments come to a head, the truth, hidden behind talk of education development and generosity weasels out. It’s now clear one major reason for the reservation Indian project is the project head has got the female chief pregnant. The project is small-scale so you know everyone involved. His wife is in the process of falling apart and the school is failing due to poor management, and the project leader is not sure which way the shore is. He’s retreated in himself, denies metaphorical punches in the face and the debts hanging over him.Fortunately I was staying only two months. It’s difficult to care about the school when the head doesn’t but especially it is a shelter for plenty of confusion and hurt. The teachers feel deceived. The Indians are confused about what is happening and feel no value is what we bring. The owners are lost in this world and hurting each other. It’s really shitty to see his wife falling apart. The teachers took change into their own hands, but the project leader abruptly left for the reservation. We changed focus and are concentrating on helping in an orphanage, teaching, painting and create a play space and allotment which resulted in an attack of fire ants. Ouch!I smoked local marijuana and that was a regret. I’m no smoker and it left me unable to sleep and paranoid. The guy who comes round selling, casually offered cocaine the other day like it was a snack. Sitting round in the evening, as a group we wonder how long we’re going to stay. The truth is there is little to constructively do and we don’t have the local resources or frankly, the aptitude to make a difference. Young volunteers typically pay for the set-up, hoping to make a mark or more honestly, a memory. Soon enough, it’s time to move on. Travelling to the reservation gives you an idea of the size of South America. Further, longer journeys are ahead to Bolivia, Peru and Argentina.chapada-fallsMore drolly, as I sit in my hammock looking across the Cuiaba, I’m wondering what I make of the cities so far. As you can guess, Brazilian cities in the interior are a heap of concrete and humidity. Little that is man-made will make you stop and wonder. Only a church holds your attention for a minute. The national parks of Chapada are stunning, cascading waterfalls and rock outcrops. The young educated locals are more thoughtful and serious than us probably by having a world to confront. It makes them more reticent to give strident opinions. The real world is complex if you don’t have the luxury of coming and going.