One of the first opportunities I got to go off base was to one of most impressive malls I have ever seen, the Villaggio. Modelled off the Venetian in Vegas, this massive indoor mall is a clear attempt to bring blue skies and moderate temps to a place that will never have either.
The interior has a river running through the middle where you can take a gondola ride past H&M, Sephora and array of western beauty and clothing shops with titles written in both English and Arabic. After closing my jaw at the pristine floors, high ceilings and impressive architecture, I ran immediately to the most western thing possible, Starbucks.
To my surprise there was a long line of mostly locals dressed in traditional Hajib/abaya (black covering women wear in public) and Thobe (white long robe men wear). Each ordered their respective coffees in English, to a cashier that was not Qatari and did not know a lick of Arabic, then promptly sat down to join their respective friend groups.
This scene alone sums up Qatar in so many ways and at the same time boggles the rational mind. The word Starbucks and Middle East should never be in the same sentence.
Public attire seems to be the most obvious difference between what one would expect to see at Starbucks in any other region of the western world vs. the Middle East. The man’s Thobe seems generally practical for the heat of the area. It is white, provides sun coverage, is airy and light. Little known fact – the black top of the headdress worn by men was actually used to tie up camels when Bedouin tribes still existed on this arid peninsula.
Then there is the Hajib and abaya. A controversial garment by western standards, it is perceived to be a physical sign of how limited women are in Arab culture. Being a women myself, I must admit that simply looking around in public makes me question how much freedom women actually have in the State of Qatar. With the oppressive heat, the black abaya’s the locals have draped around their bodies and face seem like an unnecessary layer of sweat induced silk. Some think that this is what the women wear all the time when in fact it is only around mixed company.
The base I am currently stationed at has a list of clothing requirements for everyone, but are considerably more critical of the small percentage of women. No sleeveless shirts, no short shorts, bikini’s must cover appropriate areas and conservative clothing is always preferred. With how many rules, judging eyes and critical thoughts seem to go towards what women wear, abaya’s are seeming more and more appealing. You wear what you want with your girlfriends, then just put on a silky robe when in public. No judging eyes to worry about.
It is a misconception that these traditional forms of dress are somehow mandated by the Quran, when instead it is history that has kept this tradition alive. Many cultures in the Middle East have been conquered over and over again – one of the traditional ‘rewards’ of war were the women of the area. As a measure to protect their women, conservative dress not only became standard practice, but began to be tied to how pious you were. As there is no descintion between culture and religion, law and religion entites from two different sources tend to be associated with one another and blend over time.
Many westerners find the intertwining of religion with state law confusing and restrictive. Yet, we seem to forget that we lived under similar laws not so long ago. Europe was strong in its ties between the Christian crown and its state religion, in the fact the UK still holds onto its anglican ties. The United States is the only western country that never tied the two together, being still a new culture and concept compared to the 2,000+ years of history Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, hold over much of the world.
One thing is for certain, our fundamental values seem to be at complete odds with each other. The very principles that the Middle East supports, America was founded to change. In Qatar, and much of the Arabian Peninsula, your family name matters. Where you were born, matters. How pious you are/appear in public, matters. Everything you are and everything you will be able to achieve is based on what family you come from. The individual is not important. The family unit is above all things. Arranged marriages are still practiced and accepted. Blood lines must be kept pure.
From an Americans eyes it is easy to judge based on these external facts. Why can you not be your own person, define your own destiny? The effects of my actions, will either bring me success or failure, but these are my burdens to bear.
But are they?
To some extent, despite all our efforts, we are still defined by where we come from. How many of your friends climbed the social ladder? Moved from the Projects to middle class suburbia? Are you the first generation in your family to go to college, get a white collar job? In some cases I would hope the answer would be yes, but I have found that I get the answer ‘no’ more often than yes. Despite the fact that the ‘American Dream’ is in fact possible, we are still very much defined by where we come from more than we would like to admit.
So this of course begs the question, how different are we?