We have been living in Qatar since August of 2008 so that almost makes us veterans in the expat scene. The most difficult part of this life (and there are quite a few) would have to be the good byes. We have said good bye to so many good friends and continue to do that way too much. Having said that, our short time here almost qualifies us as experts in this country. Unfortunately, it also makes us notice the unusual, quirky, or remarkable aspects of life here less often.
Over the last few weeks I have tried to attune my eyes and ears to that of the new expat once again. I don't want to ever get complacent about the experience we are having. I want to always be able to notice the crazy signs and get indignant and moved by the vast social inequalities around me. So here is another edition of what you should know about this country before jumping in to its culture as a full-fledged immigrant. Now keep in mind that I am writing from an American expat perspective and one whose first overseas experience (we hadn't even vacationed outside the U.S. before) was moving to Qatar.
1. There are only a few places in this world where you can tell how hot it is outside by getting in the shower and feeing the temperature of the "cold" water.
2. Going into a public restroom is always an adventure in Qatar and you might just want to take some fishing waders with you. Now this might be an indelicate subject, one to steer clear of when blogging on a public website, but no, I want to save someone the shock and surprise that we experienced when we found ourselves outside of the "modern" restroom environments we were used to.
So why are waders necessary? Well, in order to accommodate those folks who are used to a nice bidet, without actually providing one, the "Restroom Board of Trustees" for this part of the world have instituted spray hoses that are conveniently placed right next to the toilets so that those who want to can have a refreshing "spray down" after they have done their business. And why is this a problem? Well, the floor, toilet seat, flushing handle, and the walls end up wet and covered with . . . well the personal germs of the hundreds of people who sat there before. Yes, there is a drain on the floor but there is plenty of residual collateral damage and it ends up on the bottom of my pants after I pull them down (sorry for the graphic language) and anything else that must touch the areas described above. This isn't anything that would be solved by a hygienic toilet seat cover either. It would require a mop, bucket, and plenty of disinfectant. I try to wipe things down on our visits now, but to do it properly would require A LOT of tissue, and sometimes that isn't so plentiful. Make sure and carry your own at ALL TIMES.
Soon after we moved here, Brett, Abbey, and I were attempting one of our first grocery store visits to Carrefour, and half way through our wide-eyed hunt for food, Abbey told me she had to go to the bathroom. She was seven at the time so I couldn't expect her to hold it very long, so we ventured out of the store and into the Landmark mall to find the facilities. When we finally located them, the first door in the Ladies Room that I opened revealed this:
Needless to say, Abbey was not too keen on squatting (neither was I), so thinking that all the toilets were similar, we left. I grabbed Brett, we left our trolley full of groceries, and we made a beeline for home. It wasn't until later that I learned that there are two options in the restrooms. If I had opened the next door I would have found this, which is slightly more agreeable to our western persuasions:
Below is the type of facilities that are found in the villas we have lived in. Most have separate bidets, but some smaller bathrooms have the hose squirter thing - something I only ever associated with a kitchen sink before coming here. And by the way, don't expect your kitchen sink to have a garbage disposal. They are a bit of an oddity here. The noisy toilet paper holders are a big pain because the metal cover's purpose is to protect the toilet paper from getting wet but all it really does is prevent the user from getting a real grip on the paper. Another bit of info is that there are seldom real live bathtubs in the bathrooms. Of course showers are more water conservation friendly, so many villas are sans tubs. Some of my friends have had to plug the shower drain and let the water fill up the bottom of the shower so they could soak the dirt out of the fingernails and toenails of their little ones - ingenuity always pays off as an expat! (I will tell about using a toothpick and some gum to hang a wall clock on another post sometime.)
3. I have always enjoyed going to the movie, but when we moved here we were warned that it was a very different experience, one that could equal a combat experience or at the very least a day in junior high. First of all, there is no reliable place to find out what movies are playing where and when. It is true that the movie timings (that is another word from this part of the world used in place of times) and selections are printed in the newspaper, and there is one movie theater with a website, but the published movies and times are seldom what is actually happening at the theater. The only reliable way to know this information is to actually go to the theater and buy the tickets. Even then, Qatar is highly changeable.
Another aspect to the Qatar movie experience is the amount of young men who go to the movie but don't really care to actually watch the movie. I have sat in many movies with men in thobes behind us talking on their phones and to each other with no quiet consideration at all. Because they go to movies repeatedly, they are seldom interested in the details of the plot so they use their movie time to catch up on their text messages and phone conversations. But they will gladly reveal plot surprises ahead of time for you. And it isn't just three or four young men who do this. It is most of them.
One time Brett took me to a movie for our anniversary and the talking was so loud that I had to speak up and ask the men politely to be quiet. (Brett avoids confrontation at all costs.) They didn't comply and almost got louder, so loud that we really couldn't follow the movie. We left and complained to the management. They wanted us to go back in with them and point out the men who were being disruptive. Now, because we live in a country with the most entitled individuals around, we really didn't want to participate in an impromptu line-up, so we asked if we could just go to a later showing. They agreed but it wasn't an easy process. When we sat down for the next showing the theater was again full of noisy young men, and before too long someone had thrown a half empty bucket of popcorn on my head.
So the moral to this story is that you should definitely bring your own DVD collection with you to Qatar because even if the difficult evening traffic and large crowds weren't a factor, the movie experience is pretty iffy here and expensive to boot. Now, if we do go to the movie, we try to go in the daylight hours and avoid the vampire society that rules the night scene here.
4. Fresh fruits and vegetables go bad quickly in Qatar. Bananas last only about two days before they are spotted and ready for the banana bread recipe. Gone are the days when I could buy two weeks worth of groceries and pull out a tomato from the fridge on day 12 and have it still be nice and firm. I don't know if it is because most of the produce comes such a long distance to get here or if they just don't use preservative sprays or artificial hormonal stuff like they use in the U.S. (which could actually be a good thing) but it makes for a very complicated way of obtaining fresh ingredients.
5. Speaking of food, even boxed items are not guaranteed to be fresh here. There are many times when I have purchased boxed cereal with the use by date still in effect, but somehow the cereal just tastes wrong. I don't know if it has to do with how the products are transported, but sometimes I can just taste a chemical smell. It could be all in my head, but because the Middle East is full of oil fields, sometimes I just smell oil when I open that box of Corn Flakes that may or may not have been part of an oil tanker's cargo.
6. As an expat, I continue to meet new people. Unfortunately, I seldom meet any Qataris. Brett is lucky because he gets to know some of them through his teaching position at VCUQ but me, my circle of influence is limited. Even though I don't socialize with the local crowd, I do get to meet many different types of people from all over the world. When we moved here I was unaware of a widespread custom of greeting when being introduced to new people: the double kiss
My first big goof with this was when I met the sister of one of my neighbors. Felicity's sister Mel had just moved to Qatar from England, and when Felicity introduced us, Mel drew close to me as if to hug me but instead went for the double air kiss on each side of my face. Because I thought we were hugging I drew up a little too closely for her comfort and half hugged, half kissed Mel in introduction. I was totally awkward and stiff with this bungled greeting, and even though Mel was gracious and kind about it, I felt like a total dork.
This custom of saying hello still seems to allude me, so as I meet with friends from around the world, they just continue to be patient and indulgent with me because they know me now and know that I am awkward even in my own culture, doing my own kind of hello.
7. I've heard Qataris described as the rednecks of the Middle East - kind of the Arabic Beverly Hillbillies if you will. I think that description comes from the fact that they are relatively new to their seemingly endless wealth and they love their double-wide trailers out by the dunes where they can try out their latest, "Look what I can do!" with their vehicle of choice. Along with that derogatory nickname comes the overwhelming desire to disprove it and it seems like the Qatari powers that be (Sheikah Mozzah) are determined to make Qatar the cultural capital of this region. They are spending enormous amounts of money to make this a reality. The Museum of Islamic Art is one example of this. It is a beautifully expensive structure, designed by I.M Pei, which totally outshines the art within, so they seem to be operating under the Field of Dreams mantra of "If you build it, they will come." Now with the World Cup 2022 being awarded to Qatar the projects going on here are almost unbelievable. While some people have started to describe Dubai as the Las Vegas of the region they now say Doha is becoming the Manhattan of the Middle East.
This mantra has made this city a very interesting place to be with a lot of enrichment going on. Katara is a reproduction of a Qatari village but it has big events of affluence and prestige that happen there. Just this weekend it was host to the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. We were lucky enough to get some tickets from VCUQ, but people come from all over the world to attend, and boy was the red carpet out - literally and figuratively.
This is the film we saw. It was so good and really touched my German heart.
The film's directors/screenwriters, who are sisters and wrote this semi-autobiographical script, and two of the actors.
9. I must say something about the driving conditions here. I've heard it was worse before we arrived, but that is unimaginable. I've heard that it is worse in India or Nepal, but when I am driving on D-Ring Road and a Landcruiser flashes its lights behind me signaling me to get over, the panic in my heart tells me it couldn't be worse anywhere.
I have seen a car at the side of a somewhat busy road that was cut in half from a recent accident. In fact, smashed cars are a common sight as you drive these roads. I have been in many close calls - MANY, but our family prayers each morning and evening have become very specific as we ask for protection from the the traffic issues we cannot control, and dare I say it, I haven't been in an accident yet.
One secret of safe driving here is to assume that you will be cut off, insulted, and totally ignored by other drivers. Drivers as well as pedestrians move out into a lane and THEN look. Another secret is to have a big car. I thank my husband every day for letting me drive our Nissan Xterra so that I can have some "wasta" on the road. He seems to do okay in our Honda Civic because he is a man and automatically receives more respect as a driver. Women need a little more bulk to back up their driving here, so be prepared.
Another driving issue here is the amount of road construction that is going on. Because they are busily preparing for the World Cup 2022 the city has exploded with projects. They don't seem to be keeping track if people can actually get out of their compounds or to their work or schools. There just is no forethought with project planning or even planning the roads. A certain section of road will finally be finished and then they tear it up again because it needs a merging lane. Why didn't they think of that before?!! Then there is the "freeway" system here. The exit lanes merge off in the same lane where there is an entrance lane just behind it. People drive anywhere from 40 KMPH to 120 KMPH on this so called freeway so it can be very dangerous if I am trapped behind a very slow driver and then have a Qatari LandCruiser speed demon come up behind me with his lights flashing and there is no where to get over.