Oman

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I have always been fascinated by the Middle East. I am not sure if it is the geometric art, although admittedly repetitive, somehow intricately beautiful. Or maybe it is the impossible to read, but beautifully intertwined script that is as much a piece of artwork as it is written word. Whatever the reason is, this region provides a certain sense of exotic adventure that just makes you want to see more.

What I quickly learned is that not every Middle Eastern has that ‘old world’ era feel that makes you feel like you are escaping back in time (see an example with Qatar here). Luckily, if you are looking for a trip to Oman you have come to the right combination of modern meets preserved history.

I went to Oman in April of 2017 on an annual birthday girls trip. We tied the trip in with a few days in United Arab Emirates (UAE) using Sex and the City as our inspiration. Lets just say it did not disappoint.

Oman has been influenced by the Portuguese, Persians and British. Since the early 1900’s, however, it has been able to maintain a caliphate preserving the countries culture as well as its crucial position in the Persian Gulf. We had less time than I would have liked in the country, but unlike its flashy neighbor in the UAE, Oman seems to have maintained more of its core culture.

GENERAL INFORMATION WHEN TRAVELING IN THE MIDDLE EAST (GULF STATES)

Clothing: As one can expect, conservative clothing is a must when traveling in the middle east. Some places are more liberal than others, but generally knees, shoulders and neckline should be covered at all times. That goes for women and men – men’s shorts are generally ok, but the nicer you are dressed, the better service you will receive. Long loose clothing is also simply the most comfortable when traveling in this hot and arid climate.

Getting around: Renting a car from the airport is the most efficient, easy and best way to cut down on expensive costs of booking multiple tour packages to get around. This is how we got around in Oman. Most countries require a slightly aggressive driving style, but generally it is the best (and easiest) way to get around. Download google maps to your phone and you are golden.

Visas: Check out your country requirements, however, most visas can be easily purchased on arrival at the airport

Day 1-3 – Muscat, Stay at Somerset Panorama

Musts in Muscat: Muttrah Souq, thought to be one of the oldest markets in the world

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, check the times for when you want to go. Non-Muslims can come to visit the Grand Mosque from 8am to 11am from Saturday to Thursday, while the library is open from 9am to 2am and 4pm to 9pm Saturday to Wednesday (on Thursday the library is open for the morning session only). *Visitors must dress conservatively especially women who must cover their hair, shoulders, and arms when they visit the mosque.* If you didn’t come prepared, not to worry they have stalls with hajib to wear while in the

See a show at the Royal Opera House

Eat your heart away at one of these amazing top 18 restaurants

Other great ideas found on the Culture Trip

Day 3-4  – Nizwa, Bahla Fort

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Nizwa is one of the oldest cities in Oman and a great stopover point on your way to see UNESCO heritage site Bahla Fort. After a full day of self-touring we stayed at:

Misfah Old house hidden away in the Hajar mountains.

NOTE: We were only able to stay one night at this lovely guesthouse but if you are able to take at least a few nights, it is well worth your stay. The house itself is very basic accommodation (floor mats), but the authentic experience of being in this small village town is well worth your time!

Day 5 – Hike the Hajar Mountain range

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We organized a walking tour through the hotel that took us to a local village at the top of the mountain where we learned about the local people, how they lived and even had the opportunity to ask questions over coffee and dates. Note — If you aren’t tired of dates and coffee by the end of the trip you haven’t done enough! They are served for literally everything and will continually be offered to you went entering someones home.

Day 6-8 – Camp out Bedouin style in Rub’ al Khali Desert

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al Khali is the ‘largest contiguous sand desert in the world’. If camping in the middle of all that sand doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, check out this 5 star resort which gives you the Bedouin experience with a/c, activities and built in adventure: Desert Nights Camp 

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Side story: Don’t ever forget you are in the desert, despite the luxury around you. Although unlikely to happen to you, we found this little critter exploring around in our room. After my two (very tough) girlfriends jumped onto their beds to get away from this guy (not more than 3 inches), I was able to trap him using our water glass. Good thing we caught him because the nearest hospital is a solid hours drive from the desert camp. What’s camping without a little adventure?

Day 8 – Bimmah Sinkhole on your way back to Muscat

Jump off into the clear blue water in this easy stop off point on your way back to Muscat from the desert. Click here – for everything you wanted to know about visiting.

My time in Oman was not nearly enough. If you have longer, looking into great diving , water activities and some of the better beaches and watering holes, including Wadi Bani Khalid.

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48 hours in Doha

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My time in Doha is now coming to an end. It has been quite the ride of new experiences and challenges; I am very much looking forward to seeing something besides brown sand, returning to Europe and not sweating the instant I walk outside. After 6 months here, I can safely give a review of the country as well as recommend where to go.

Firstly, if you think you are going to have this wild cultural experience in the country, think again. As far as I can tell, the country only just started to exist in the last 10-20 years and in fact has changed so drastically over that time, it is barely recognizable. Prior to gaining its independence from Britain in the 1970s, Qatar had little in the way of infrastructure or wealth, subsiding on a mostly Bedouin, nomadic culture. They have tried very hard to bring their society up to a modern standard – and in doing so quickly, there is little left in the way of Bedouin roots (at least for the non-Arab outside traveler).

This does not mean that Doha is not worth the trip as one can still experience a modern Middle Eastern culture; one that is completely safe and open to westerners, working its way to compete with neighboring giants of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain.

Doha Top 5 experiences:

1 – Islamic Museum of Art – This museum has been named one of the modern wonders of the world. This is truly the jewel of Doha – the most extensive, progressive art collection in the entire Middle East sits on the waters of Doha. Even not being particularly keen museum or art person, it is more than worth a visit.

http://www.mia.org.qa/en/

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2 – The Souqs – Completely rebuilt, the complex of waiving shops still takes you back into a world of old Arabia (which feels like something out of Aladdin). The best part – it’s not just made for western tourists and expats, locals also do much of their shopping there, including custom made thobes and abayas.

http://www.souq-waqif-doha.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Souq_Waqif

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3 – Shisha (or Hookah as we call it in the western world) – The one thing I discovered in Doha that was a complete surprise to me was Shisha. A cultural practice; and probably the best legal buzz I have ever experienced, I soon become really picky over the ‘best’ places to go. You health nuts don’t snub your nose, I am one of you and was easily converted over long afternoons puffing this strong flavored tobacco. Order a pipe once a weekend, totally fine 🙂 If you are looking for some of the better places for Hookah in the city, below are my personal favorites:

Shisha Lounge, Sharq village – outdoors, with a beautiful view of the complex pool one of the few places you can smoke shisha and have an adult beverage http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/qatar/sharq-village/dining/al-wanis-shisha-terrace

Sharq village also had one of the best spa in Doha, themed after old Arabia:

http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/qatar/sharq-village/spa

Shisha Terrace, Four Seasons – Air conditioned, but encompassed in all glass for a stunning view of the also impressive hotel complex. No adult beverages, but the smoothest shisha I have found in Doha

Damascus, Souqs – There is no shortage of places to smoke hookah in the Souqs, but one of the better places is the upstairs of the Syrian restaurant named Damascus. Air conditioned in the summer and open to the elements in the winter, its scenic and serves a full meal along with your choice of shisha flavours. Best shisha combo (ask anyone) is grape-mint

http://damascarestaurant.com/

4 – Friday Brunch – Probably the best brunch I have ever had in my entire life was at the Kempinski hotel on Boxing day (26 Dec). Read any guide book and they will tell you that Brunches in Doha are a mainstay. Not just because they are one of the most extravagant spreads of food you will lay your eyes on, but even better, they come with an all you can drink package. In a town which taxes the Hell out of its alcohol (think Vegas drinking prices), this is the best deal in town.

Kempinski Hotel – A great way to see the latest gem of Doha, the Pearl

https://www.kempinski.com/en/doha/marsa-malaz-kempinski-the-pearl-doha/dining/friday-brunch/friday-brunch/

Top 20 brunches in the city:

http://www.timeoutdoha.com/gallery/55521-the-20-best-brunches-in-doha

5 – Night on the Town – Weekends in the Islamic world are on Friday & Saturday, but Thursday & Friday nights are your best evenings out. Because drinking is limited to the western hotels, ‘the’ places to go are the latest 4-5 star resorts. While this certainly puts a damper on ‘retro-cool’ places to frequent, you do have a guarantee of meeting every expat in Doha as the options are limited.

Jazz bar, & rooftop lounge St. Regis – Tag these two places with a Friday brunch and you have the best night out in town. The jazz club in the St. Regis has a partnership with the Lincoln center in New York City where they bring out some of the most talented jazz musicians in the world to play to an often half empty intimate lounge. Absolutely wonderful opportunity. If jazz isn’t your thing, then stumble over to the rooftop lounge next-door for the latest in EDM and fancy cocktails.

http://www.stregisdoha.com/

Sundowners, Sharq village – Another Friday mainstay. This place is one of the few that has the option of old school hip hop, EDM or lounge. Spend all evening here with food, drink & shisha options to chill out after dancing on their beachfront dancefloor.

http://www.eventsdoha.com/sundowner-session/

W hotel, Crystal Lounge – If you are looking for a great place to dance, this is it. With mixes of old school hip hop and modern music, the W never disappoints.

http://www.whoteldoha.com/

A note: Nightlife and the 2022 World Cup

It will be interesting to see how this conservative country copes with having an influx of western football fans invade its small nation, particularly fans who have an ingrained culture of drinking. While being drunk in public is not something Qataris look favorably upon, they tend to accept it if done discretely. So the plan is to host tents where wristbands allow you to enter and partake in a beverage or two…

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-3077037/How-Doha-transforming-2022-FIFA-World-Cup.html

Final thing to do (but you can do it anywhere in the ME) – Ride a camel of course! There is no desert without camel rides so hope on. Lots of cool opportunities to do so, and also catch a wave on a sand dune while you are at it.

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Hanging out with TeamCoCo

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Did I mention I had the best job in the world? When I say I ‘deployed’ many assume I did what is seen on CNN – holster a gun, lead convoys, exchange small arms fire with the enemy and occasionally maneuver around an IED attack. Or actually, since I am in the Air Force, I should probably fly a plane and drop bombs for my day job.

Although I have friends that do all of the above, I got to do quite the opposite side of spectrum – work USO type events in an effort to regenerate our workforce. It meant I got to spend 6 months thinking of creative ways people could have fun (think concerts, card games and cardboard water relays) to decompress in an often stressful, high-paced work environment. This is my dream job – party planning, for a living.

Although I could throw a really sweet event, one aspect of the job that I had never done before was to work with the entertainment industry to host large scale concerts (think 1K+ people). I learned what a tech rider was, how to book a well-known artist and how much it really costs to do so. As I often told people, ‘they never taught me how to do this in officer school’.

Out of all the crazy stories I could tell from doing this job, the pinnacle of my 6 months in Doha was hosting the First Lady of United states (FLOTUS) and taping a live Conan O’Brien show.behind the scenes

I had 10 days notice. FLOTUS would be in town speaking at a conference encouraging women in STEM and wanted to swing by the base for a morale visit. She wanted to spend time with a small group of Airmen and then bring out an artist to entertain the base population – so she called Conan O’Brien.

I’ll spare you the prep work details, the lack of sleep, security concerns involved and speed forward to picking up the head producer, writers, talent manager and camera crew from the Doha airport. While they flew via ‘normal’ first class tickets, Conan got to come a day later via Air Force one with the First Lady.

Having skipped the normal paperwork procedures, (I normally needed a minimum of 30 days to process customs paperwork through the Qatari government) we started off the evening stuck at the entrance of Al Udeid Air Base, which is wholly owned by the Qatari government; a political stance we were reminded of while we waited for over two hours while foreign guards went through every piece of video equipment.

Normally I have a fairly negative stereotype of anyone who is part of the industry of L.A., let alone a group of people who by all accounts were famous and successful in the industry. Having this stigma on my mind, I was pleasantly surprised by the entire groups calm nature, patience and general pleasant company – keeping in mind that they also had 10 days notice on this trip and hadn’t slept in 24+ hours. It was at this point I started to realize I was with a truly great group of people; given a unique opportunity to peak under the curtain of the entertainment industry.

And what I saw was a dedicated team of professionals who were able to come-up with funny, situationally-appropriate material in under 24 hours. Later I learned the short timeline was something the team was used to; being a daily show, your best or worst show only lasts for 24 hours or until your next show. So if you mess up, no big, yet if you go big and win, the reward is short lived. This, to me, allows for great creative writing where you constantly have to reinvent yourself to maintain entertaining material. What was more refreshing is that they didn’t care what the local leadership thought of their oh-so-true-to-the-Deid jokes.

Show time

Getting as much B-roll as possible the day prior, I went with the head producer + driver to transfer Conan from the First Ladies team of White House staff to Al Udeid Air base.

Little known fact (well maybe just by me): Conan actually went to Harvard and is pretty much hilarious all the time, but amazingly, can still have a normal, serious conversation. Hanging out with the Conan O’Brien + team is like hanging out with an old group of friends. The guys had been working together for nearly 20 years, and it shows. Rather than feeling like the guy that just showed up 20 minutes ago, you feel like you were with them all along.

 Side note: It is interesting to see how dynamics change when you have access to someone famous. I chose to hook-up a friend as the driver who was a fan, but in doing so pissed off another friend. Not without good reason, but was another lesson learned; things change when you have exclusive access to someone famous. You suddenly become either more or less desirable depending on what people want and who you chose reward.

Behind the scenes with Conan O’Brien? Like working with a well-oiled machine that felt both refreshing and comforting all at the same time.

The clips in the below link  show pretty much everything to the trip. To the many selfies, excited troops and quirky moments that make up filming in both the challenging environment of the desert and a foreign military installation.

http://teamcoco.com/video/conan-entertains-the-troops-at-al-udeid-air-base

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A peak under the Abaya

As a part of a volunteer program between the US base and the embassy, I was able to participate in an exchange program with Qatar University. A group of women met weekly at the university to practice conversational English. The program was helpful for both the students and the military women as it gave an unguarded ability to have a conversation with people from such a drastically different culture.

For my first visit I was instructed to enter on the women’s side of the library. Qatar University is a traditional school where classes are separated by sex, down to the library where male and female floors were designated (and included long robed female guards, although I am sure chaperone would probably be a more appropriate word). Riquyana, our main student, met us for coffee and escorted us up to the ‘American corner’ of the women’s side of the library.

There I met several other ladies attending the college and learned of their subjects of study as well as university life. All students still live at home while attending the university. Many of them have a driver that drops them off for classes (although my favorite girl that I met, Hen, was Sudanese and drove herself around). Additionally, the ladies came from all nationalities, but all spoke Arabic fluently (despite all classes being in English and modeled after an American curriculum).

Riquyana was from Pakistan, wore an abaya and was studying political science. Her sister, also wore an abaya and was one of the first students studying a new subject to the university, Public Health. Hen was Sudanese studying international relations; she had volunteered extensively with the UN and often worked internationally advocating for womens rights. She dressed just as I would expect any normal western 20-something-year old to wear with no head dressing, mainly jeans and a t-shirt. Jazzi was born Qatari studying political science and probably the most liberal, young Qatari women I had met. Although she wore an abaya she often left it open when walking in public with us, only feigning some conservative cover up when passing local men.

The rules Jazzi had to follow compared to the other non-qatari women was fascinating. She could not be seen in public smoking shisha (hookah), or at any establishment that served alcohol (although she herself did not drink). Dating meant something totally different entirely. If a gentleman was interested in dating her, he had to ask her family for permission first. Upon agreement, the couple had a year of dating to decide if they wanted to marry one another. If either at any point decided they were not favorable, it was easy to break the potential union off. I have to say, in our current error of casual dating (and sex) this formal courtship seemed a bit refreshing to me; dating in the US has certainly swayed far from its original intent of gauging potential for marriage..

Jazzi had dated a prince previously, and had a position at one the ministries in the government waiting for her once she graduated. Being Qatari, it was easy to see the subtle differences on her wealthy life compared to the other ladies she was friends with.

Yet, although Hen of upper middle class Sudanese decent, would probably not marry a prince or have a high-brow job waiting for her when she was complete with her studies, she had a lot better gig than the rest of the girls. She was completely secular, could come meet us out at one of the western hotels for a drink or show us her favorite shisha spot. Her other close friends were outspoken journalists, very critical of the lack of free speech found in the state of Qatar. If I didn’t know it, I would have thought they were all American university students (and indeed looked at the states as an ideal place of freedom).

Other than these two extremes, the girls had a lot in common with young women from around the world. They were on facebook, had twitter, Instagram, and snapchat. Jazzi even had pictures on her Instagram of her hair down and showing, which she didn’t seem to think was violating any of her conservative customs. They were all bubbly, boy crazy and fun, with the whole world in front of them and encouragement of society to reach out and grab it. 

What did I learn about Arabic women after drinking coffee with them, sharing dinner and being invited back to their homes?

They are a diverse, intelligent, have varying belief systems and lifestyles depending on their heritage and are a lot more liberal and ‘with’ modern society than the clothing they choose to wear in public. The western world tends to see the Middle East, especially when it pertains to women’s rights, as one monotheistic culture when in fact it is one large melting pot of traditions and Islamic nuisances. Next time you see a women fully garbed in a traditional abaya, ask yourself, how much do I really know about her?

 

An OCN for the Day

= Other Country Nationals (formally known as TCNs or Third country nationals – other country nationals was deemed more PC).

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Picture: OCN worker in Iraq courtesy of https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_country_national

OCNs are the backbone of the workforce in Qatar, and for much of the wealthy Middle East (UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, etc.). Qatari’s do not fight in their own military, drive their own cars, do their own laundry or cook their own food. They have an infinite stream of people (mostly men) pouring into the country looking for opportunities to make living (all of which is sent back to support their families in varies developing nations in the orient).
This workforce is not limited to the country of Qatar, it also exists on nearly every military installation in the Middle East. Varying in scope, Al Udeid (a large Air Force base in Qatar) has one of the largest populations of contracted outside workers. With the sheer size of military operations, the government contracts out a significant portion of its support services as it cannot sustain regular ops of that magnitude for things like food, construction, cleaning, MWR and other basic services.
Many have heard of the controversial deaths incurred while building the massive stadiums for the upcoming World Cup games. In fact the Qatari government has made marked improvements to help improve the conditions of the workers sweating in unbearable heat on top of sky scrappers. Even with some of these improvements, however, treatment of workers in Qatar that are either non-western or non-Arab are still sub-par at best.
Qatari law dictates that in order for a company to sponsor you over to Qatar to work, they must also provide housing. This is not a bad deal except that those same rules do not provide standards for housing conditions. Nearly all the OCN workers live in large compounds with 4 or more to a room (dubbed ‘man camps’ by the US military). They work at least 6 days a week (many of the workers I spoke with work a month before getting 1 day off) and make a minuscule amount of money, summing somewhere around $300 a month depending on the job.
Probably the most shocking practice is the confiscation of passports by the contract owner. The company gives generic reasons for doing this, but I cannot think of any other reason than power over their work pool. By doing this, they control when (if) they can leave the country. They also control contract hoping for better wages. While I use the word ‘worker’ to describe many of these laborers the translation in Arabic is closer to servant or slave. In restaurants you will also see signs that bar these same people from entering, which is clear and even expected, discrimination (not that they could afford to eat out or have a drink in a western hotel). This practice is known, has been written about and still remained largely unchanged despite protests from the international community.
Yet the stream of workers continues to flow. Many of the workers I met on the base were highly educated in their home country including lawyers and doctors. Regardless of their education, they still made more money working in the Middle East than they did practicing their trade in countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Philippines.

Unlike the US there is also no path to citizenship. You could be born in Qatar, have lived in Qatar for 30 years and established your entire life in the country, but you will still never be Qatari. You will also not enjoy the same rights, privileges and social status of a Qatari. You will be treated differently depending on what nation you are originally from (UK/US seem to be at the top of the tier with Nepal, Sri Lanka & Filipino being some of the lowest). You could speak fluent Arabic, be Muslim and wear an abaya – but it is does not matter. To be Qatari means you descend from a certain bloodline that can be traced back a few hundred years.

I had the pleasure of meeting a few University students who originally were from Sudan. Although they grew up in Doha, went to Qatar university and spoke fluent Arabic they did not consider themselves Qatari and were in fact very critical of the country and the native born Qataris. They reinforced the believe that immigrant workers are in fact the only thing propping up the wealthy country.

Learning the conditions that these people lived and worked in completely shocked me, especially when I learned it didn’t matter if they were contracted by the US government or the Qatari government. There is a  clear divide between the extreme rich and poor. The two groups of people live and work in two totally different worlds with the differences being so starkly obvious: one with Dior sunglasses, red bottom shoes and a land cruiser with driver – and the other – soiled work suits in mass buses with no air conditioning (provided by their employer only to bus their workers to and from work). There were so many workers hitchhiking on the side of the roads trying to get to A to B or running walking across the five lane highway system.

The western world is not without its issues, however, this kind of extreme exclusivity to wealth is still hard for me to accept as ‘simply part of the culture’. When it is so institutionalized as it is in both overseas military operations and in Middle Eastern countries, and you have a limited amount of time and resources, how do you change it?

camel racing

It was a day at the races for the Qatari’s, which since we are talking about a race in the middle of the Desert, involved camels. Yes ladies and gentlemen I went to a camel race and lived to tell about it

imageThe experience itself was so quintessentially Qatari – it is ironic really. First take everything you know about horse racing and throw it out the window; in the world of Middle Eastern camel racing there is no gambling, actual jockeys, booze (of course), mass crowds with fancy hats or really very many spectators. The races last for about 15 minutes and get this – you race next to the camels in a 4×4 truck.

This is probably the coolest difference between horse racing and camel racing – actually racing next to the action. While we were spectators, the locals ride next to ‘their’ camel. Every camel in the race is owned by a Qatari. Rather than having a jockey that ensures the camel knows where they are going, they have a ‘monkey’ aka an electronic whip that the owner controls. As the race nears to the end, the owners try their best to get their unmanned beast to be the first to finish. While there are no cash prizes for any of the race wins, the larger races do a have a ‘consolation’ prize of a Lamborghini for first place and a Mercedes for 2nd and 3rd. Not bad for a race that doesn’t accept betting.

imageA camel itself costs upwards of $1M riyal or about $350K and is in its best racing age at 5. Previous to mechanical technology, a 5 year old child used to be the lucky individual atop of the camel. The practice has since been banned as inhumane (surprisingly).

Having gone to the Grand National, as well as my fair share of small town races, I have to say camel racing pales in comparison. I am sure it is fun for the few rich individuals that can afford to race their $350K camels for a Lamborghini, but for the rest of us commoners, it is downright boring. How do you have a race that you can’t drink or bet on? It is definitely not American and would have zero chance in England.

In so many ways this is what I have discovered about the Qatari culture. They have similar attempts at typically western events, but nearly all of them leave you feeling like it is a cheap (but more expensive) imitation of the real thing.

Drinking in general is a good example of this. There are places to drink, but it is only allowed in hotels. Who finds the hippest places in hotels? Drinks are overpriced, music is imported and the atmosphere is that of an expensive hotel trying to be cool. They aren’t bad, but nowhere close to the nightlife scene you would expect in a capital city.

With the ever expanding would of newly oil-rich nations, who knows what is next for camel racing. But I can tell you – the only race I will be watching in the future will be one where I can watch ‘my horse’ race to the top.

How Different are We

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?