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An American in Qatar:

Living in Qatar 

Ah salam aluykum.  In Arabic that mean “Hello,” or more precisely, “Peace be upon you.”  It’s been almost a year since I’ve posted an entry in my semi-occasional series called “An American in Qatar,” so I figured that it’s time to write again.  In my last entry I described why I moved here to Qatar and what it's like to move to the Middle East.  I’ve been here for 18 months now, so I wanted to describe in this lengthy update everything you want to know about living in this small, Persian Gulf country -- and a few things you probably don't.

 

 

Above:  The country of Qatar (highlighted in red) is about the size of Connecticut and borders Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.

Things here are going well and I’m still happy with my decision to move to Qatar (pronounced "COT-tar").  In fact, moving here was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. 

 

I still enjoy my job at the Central Planning Office (CPO) in downtown Doha, the capital and largest city in Qatar.  I do computer mapping work, known as "GIS," for CPO’s five-person GIS team.  The 100-person Central Planning Office, which occupies three floors of an office tower in downtown Doha, is a division of the British engineering consulting firm, Atkins.

 

About 150 people worked at CPO when I arrived here in May of 2013, but a few months later Atkins abruptly trimmed 50 people from the rolls.  In the U.S. they call that being “laid off,” but since Atkins is a British firm, here they call it "being made redundant.”  Whatever you call it, it’s not fun and was a major surprise for everyone involved.  However, 100 of us survived the job cuts (whew!) and things have stabilized since then.  I finished my West Bay Bus map several months ago and 20,000 copies were printed and distributed to the public, and since then I’ve been mapping and designing the future bus route system for Qatar. 

 

Above:  Here's where I work.  The Central Planning Office occupies Floors 14, 15 and 16 of the MMUP Building in downtown Doha.

So what’s living in Qatar like?  It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, certainly, but with that being said, people are people.  People everywhere in the world, I think, are basically the same and all seek two main things in life:  happiness and meaning.  That’s true in America and it’s also true here.  With that philosophical context in mind, I'll describe specifically what my life here is like.

 

I’m still living at the Beverly Hills Tower, a modern 26-floor apartment building in downtown Doha which is literally across the street from the MMUP Building, where CPO is housed on floors 14, 15 and 16.  My daily commute, therefore, is about five minutes (seven minutes if the elevators are slow).  Across the street from CPO in the other direction is the City Center Mall, the largest mall in Qatar, which has a Walmart-like store called Carrefour, where I buy all of my groceries, small appliances, hard drives, toothpaste and anything else I need.

 

I enjoy my apartment at Beverly Hills Tower, though like many things in the Middle East, looks can be deceiving.  From the outside, BHT looks like a modern, gleaming and impressive apartment tower but it’s a bit decrepit on the inside and water leaks are common.  A few months ago, my neighbor’s apartment ceiling sprung a leak and water flowed into the hallway, then a few weeks later, another apartment ceiling sprung a leak and water literally poured down the elevator shafts for several hours, forcing everyone to take the stairs for a week until they fixed it.  I went back to America last summer for a month and before I left Qatar, I hoped that the plumbing in my bedroom’s ceiling wouldn’t burst and that my possessions would still be dry and intact when I got back here.  Like I say, looks in the Middle East are often deceiving.

 

But despite the occasional plumbing problem, I’m content and self-contained.  Everything I need is within a few blocks of my apartment so I haven’t bought a car, nor do I need one.  But I have made a few forays out into the Qatari countryside, including an all-day excursion around the entire country, which I’ll describe later in this update. 

 

   

Above left:  The Central Planning Office's GIS team.  From left to right:  Helen (temporarily here from the UK), Indu, Bill, Oumer, me, and Shree.  Bill, the team leader, is from the UK and the other three are from India.

Above right:  I live here at the leaky Beverly Hills Tower apartment building in downtown Doha.  My unit is on the right side, 19 floors up.

Staying Connected with America

I dearly miss America, of course, but I stay connected through various means, including email.  I have a cable TV package here, but they show mostly Arab and British channels, so I don’t watch it much.  Instead, I use my computer to stream shows from America, mostly PBS (including the News Hour every night), and I buy lots of movies from iTunes.  In fact, during the past 18 months I’ve amassed a collection of over 100 movies in .mp4 format -- only half of which I've actually watched -- as well as dozens of TV shows that I’ve also downloaded (yay, Gilligan’s Island!)  And I’ve subscribed to just about every streaming channel, including ESPN so I can watch American sports, a requisite no matter where I live.

 

Above:  The Internet is censored here.  This is what happened when I tried to access a Qatar expat forum.

On weekend nights (weekends in the Middle East are on Friday and Saturday), I escape back to America, so to speak.  I push my recliner loveseat close to my 32” TV in my bedroom, turn off the lights, and stream movies or my favorite American TV shows, including “Friday Night Lights,” “Portlandia,” “Felicity” and “The Americans” to remind me of things back home -- like high school football, Portland, my college days and nasty Russian spies, respectively. 

 

After watching American TV shows late into Friday night, I get up on Saturday morning and stream on-demand sporting events from the Northwest, like my University of Portland and Portland State soccer, basketball and volleyball teams, of games they played just a few hours earlier back in the States.  I do that while washing my clothes and cooking a week’s worth of meals in the kitchen, so my weekends are busy but relaxed.

 

   

Above left:  My wonderful bedroom at Beverly Hills Tower.  This is where I spend most of my time when I'm not working at CPO.

Above right:  And here's my reclining La-Z-Boy loveseat, perfect for us lazy boys.  I really love my bedroom, which I've lined with photos of the U.S.

My Typical Week

My work schedule here is pretty constant, not crazy like the 80- or 90-hour weeks that I was working at Otak back in Portland.  I work at CPO from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. each day with a half-hour for lunch.  Nine-hour workdays are standard for private sector firms in Qatar, while government employees work only about six hours a day, if that (with lots of long breaks).  Government jobs are highly-sought after in Qatar, not just because of the short work days and typically-light workloads, but also because of the outrageously-high salaries, well over $100,000 per year (tax-free) on average.  Understandably, most government jobs go to Qataris.

 

Above:  My cubicle at CPO.  Those are photos of Oregon on my monitors.

Although I work nine-hour days here, compared to the standard eight-hour days back in America, I do get more vacation time than most American companies offer.  Atkins is a British firm so, like with most European companies, we get a lot of vacation time each year – six weeks in my case, instead of the two or three weeks per year that’s typical in the U.S.

 

After working all day in the CPO building, I walk across the street each evening to my apartment at Beverly Hills Tower, fix dinner, eat dinner in my bedroom while watching news broadcasts from the U.S., then I go to bed around 10 p.m.  At the end of the week, on Thursday nights (again, weekends here are on Friday and Saturday), I usually walk over to City Center Mall, sometimes with my good friend from Sacramento, Nafez, and another co-worker, Shashi, and eat dinner over there at the food court.  That’s my definition of “cutting loose,” I guess!  Then I walk down to the Carrefour grocery store, located on the ground floor of the mall, and buy groceries for the upcoming week and carry them back to my apartment.

 

Above:  I walk a few miles down Doha's corniche every weekend.  I call this small patch of sand "Del's Beach" (catchy name, huh?)

On Friday mornings I usually walk a few miles down the beautiful Doha waterfront, called the “corniche,” and sit on a small, sandy beach there for a while, then I walk back to my apartment in mid-afternoon.  You can’t do that in the summer months because it’s extremely hot and humid then, with temperatures frequently exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit and with exceptionally high humidity, given that Qatar is right on the Persian Gulf.  Qatar is a veritable steam bath from May through September, but starting in October, people start wandering outside again.  It’s sort of the reverse of America, where people are cooped up inside their houses during the winter months, given the cold and rainy weather.  In December and January, the weather here is absolutely perfect, typically with sunny skies and highs in the 70s. 

 

The term “perfect” is relative, though.  I walked to work one morning last year on a beautiful day in November, wearing just slacks and a dress shirt.  It was about 65 degrees but it was sunny and, in the sunshine I was even sweating a bit.  But 65 is cool by November standards here, especially given that many people in Qatar are used to much warmer temperatures.  I passed a few guys on the street, apparently from India, who were bundled in thick, down jackets they had zipped all the way to the top.  To someone who’s from India, I guess 65 is considered “cold” but to me, it was just right.

 

   

Above left:  Having fun at CPO.  Our office went bowling one evening last spring.  That's me, Shree, Oumer and Helen.  I hadn't bowled in over 20 years -- and it showed.

Above right:  This is The Pearl, one of the ritziest expat communities in Qatar, located a few miles north of Doha.

 

       

Above left:  Here are some shots of City Center Mall, which is a few blocks from my apartment.  The mall has the only skating rink in Qatar.

Above center:  Entering Carrefour.  This is my favorite store in Qatar.

Above right:  The deli at Carrefour, where I buy dinner every few nights.

 

   

Above left:  The smiling staff in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Tower.

Above right:  And here's my living room.

 

     

Above left:  My apartment's kitchen is "Indian Style" instead of Western Style, meaning it's an enclosed room rather than open.

Above center:  Qatar is on the Persian Gulf, so the humidity here during the summer months is oppressive.  If you walk outside for more than a few minutes during the summer, your clothes will be drenched in sweat.  I bought a dehumidifier for my bedroom, which proudly sits above the bidet.

Above right:  Here's the view of the Persian Gulf from my apartment.  New buildings are sprouting up everywhere in Doha.

The Arabic Language

For many years my foreign language skills had been limited to some high school Spanish and a few favorite German words, including "bratwurst" and "strudel."  I learned a little Arabic shortly before I moved to Qatar, as I'll describe below, but most foreigners don't need to know much if any Arabic to get around Qatar, especially in the larger cities.  The official language in Qatar is Arabic, of course, but like much of the world, Qatar is becoming a dual-language country:  the local language (in this case, Arabic) is used by the locals while English -- or at least, broken English -- is used by many non-locals. 

 

Above:  From right to left, these Arabic characters are:  "ta - eee," "sa - eee," "ba-eee," and "oo-wha-eye."  So pronounced together quickly, it's "TCBY." 

English is more commonly spoken and understood in the urban areas of Qatar than in rural areas.  It may be hard to find anyone who speaks English in smaller towns here, and most of the signs in rural areas of Qatar are only in Arabic.  In larger cities, however, almost all of the signs are in both Arabic and English and most retailers speak at least a little English.  That’s because there’s such a large expat population here – about 80% of people working and living in Qatar are from another country – that English is the unofficial second language in Qatar.  Also, most road signs here, no matter where you are, are in both Arabic and English. 

 

There are two basic steps for understanding any foreign word.  Step 1 is to be able to read (and mentally pronounce) the word and Step 2 is to translate that word so you understand it.  English uses the same Latin alphabet as most European languages, such as French or Spanish, so if you speak only English, you can at least pronounce words written in another European language (Step 1).  Because you can read and pronounce it, you can also make an educated guess at what the word means (Step 2).  For example, the Spanish word for “market” is “mercado” so if you see the word “mercado” in a town in Mexico, you can read and pronounce it.  You can also logically guess that it’s a market.  For languages that use the Latin alphabet, you can usually pronounce every word you see.  Sometimes you can even translate them into English.

 

Arabic uses a completely different alphabet, however, so if you can’t read or speak Arabic, then you can’t even pronounce the words (Step 1), let alone translate them into English (Step 2).  Also, the Arabic language is read from right-to-left, instead of from left-to-right like the English language so it takes some getting used to.  And interestingly enough, vowels in the Arabic language are often omitted from Arabic writings, like in a book or newspaper.  It's just "understood" by the reader what the invisible vowel should be.  All of these things -- the strange alphabet, the right-to-left reading, and the invisible vowels -- make Arabic a challenging language to learn.

 

I took a basic Arabic class at Portland Community College a few months before I moved here and it was helpful, especially in learning the Arabic alphabet.   I also brought a book on Arabic with me to Qatar to refresh my memory and every week or so, I review the 28 characters of the Arabic language.  I also play a little game when I go to the mall and see the store names in both English and Arabic.  First I look at the Arabic word and try to pronounce it, then I check the English spelling to see if I’m right.  I’ve learned the Arabic alphabet well enough so I can pronounce most of what I read in Arabic (Step 1), but I still can’t translate most of the words that I can pronounce into English (Step 2).  So even though I can pronounce the Arabic words that I'm reading, I don't understand what those words mean in English.

 

Above:  A "Yield" sign in Doha.  Reading from right to left, those four Arabic characters are:  a-f-s-h, so it's pronounced "af-sah."  Hmmm, that must mean "yield."

For example, the road sign for “Yield” here has a word that’s written in Arabic characters and by reading those characters, I can pronounce the word as “af-sah.”  I would have no idea of what “af-sah” meant except for the fact that it’s displayed on a “Yield” sign, so therefore I can deduce that “af-sah” must mean something like “yield” or “give way.” 

 

But as rudimentary as my Arabic is, I’m leagues ahead of most of my Western colleagues here who, in general, have made little or no effort to learn Arabic.  That’s reflects the fact that you don’t really need to know how to read or speak much Arabic to live in urban areas of Qatar, or most other Gulf countries.  Nevertheless, it’s helpful to know a little Arabic (and, of course, it's required for certain jobs, especially in the government).  If you at least make an attempt to speak some Arabic, it will help ingratiate you with the locals and you’ll have a more positive experience here.  If you ever decide to visit the Persian Gulf area, you should first learn a few words of Arabic, including “Shokran” (thank you), “Salam” (hello) – or it’s more formal phrasing of, “Ah salam aluykum” (peace be upon you) -- and “ma salama” (goodbye).  Some of my Western colleagues here don’t even make an effort to do that.

 

To summarize, if you speak only English, you don’t have to worry about learning the Arabic language if you ever decide to visit a Gulf country.  But it’s helpful, polite and respectful to learn at least a little Arabic.

Food in the Middle East:  Part 1

Food is an important issue with me, as you know if you’ve been reading my website, and the food situation here takes some getting used to, even if you’re flexible and adventurous when it comes to food like I am.  One of the best meals I’ve had so far is braised camel, which I ate last spring on a rooftop restaurant in the historic market of Doha, an area called Souq Waqif (a “souq” is an open-air Arab market). 

 

Above:  Eating braised camel last spring on a rooftop restaurant with friends.  This is at Souq Waqif, the largest traditional Arab market in Qatar.

I don’t eat in restaurants very often, though, because as you also know, I’m pretty frugal (i.e., "cheap").  Therefore I mostly cook at home.  I buy most everything I need at the huge, modern and well-stocked Carrefour grocery story a few blocks away, but they don’t have many of my favorite staples and so, like with everything else here, it’s been an adjustment. 

 

Carrefour has a deli department like most large grocery stories in the U.S., where you can buy hot, take-home dinners.  There’s a large Indian population in Qatar, so I’ve become well acquainted with the deli’s Indian dishes, including samosas (fried dumplings), biriyani rice and tikka masala.  And, like most grocery store delis in the U.S., they also sell broiled chickens in mass quantities.  They’re not the huge, plump rotisserie chickens they sell at Costco in the U.S., though.  Nope -- they’re small and scrawny.  And they cook them exceptionally well, so well that I refer to them as “little burned chickens.”  During my first few months here, I was eating so many Little Burned Chickens with plates of biriyani rice for dinner that I was getting thoroughly sick of it.

 

Above:  You never know what goodies you'll find on the shelves of Carrefour.

But then one day while strolling through the aisles of Carrefour, I spotted a new item on the shelf:  refried beans from America.  Refried beans!  How I missed Mexican food!  I bought a few cans and brought them home and opened one, then ate the beans straight from the can.  Those beans were absolutely delicious.  Yes, they were just plain, old refried beans with nothing special about them.  But I hadn’t eaten any Mexican food since I’d left Portland several months earlier, so they tasted wonderful. 

 

I had a similar experience with pizza a few months later.  The Carrefour deli sells what they call “pepperoni pizza” for about $2 each.  They’re about the size of a pie plate – and they taste like a pie plate, too:  the crust is hard as a brick, there’s virtually no cheese, and the “pepperoni” is a tasteless meat product, something like bland salami.  But then one day at City Center Mall I spotted a Pizza Hut, so I ordered a medium-size pepperoni pizza. 

 

I’ve eaten literally hundreds of pizzas in my life, but this pepperoni pizza was the absolute best pizza I’d ever had.  It was just a regular Pizza Hut pizza, frankly, but after surviving on those quasi-pizzas at Carrefours for several months (not to mention the Little Burned Chickens), it was about the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten, with thick and chewy crust, heaps of real mozzarella cheese, and spicy pepperoni.  Someone eating it in America would’ve shrugged their shoulders because it was just another Pizza Hut pizza, but to me it was heaven because I hadn’t tasted real pizza in six months.  Several months later I still think about that pizza with great fondness -- sort of like a long-lost lover -- and what a taste explosion it was.

 

Above:  The deli at Carrefour.  The samosas (center) are great while the chickens (right) are small and well-cooked.  It's a good thing you can't see their "pizzas."

I ate at an Applebee’s restaurant one evening during my first month in Doha.  I really missed pasta, so I ordered a big plate of spaghetti, Italian bread and a large soda, and with the tip, my bill was about 100 Rials (about $30 dollars).  After I paid the bill on my way out, the Filipino waitress cheerfully said to me, “See you tomorrow night!” in a lilting Filipino accent.  I realized as I was walking away that I had just paid $30 for a plate of spaghetti. 

 

I told Nafez, my colleague from Sacramento, about that experience the next day at the CPO office and he laughed at me, having spent $30 for a plate of Applebee’s spaghetti.  Now, whenever he and I discuss some rip-off that we’ve heard about in Qatar, one of us will say to the other in a cheerful Filipino accent, “See you tomorrow night!” 

 

       

Above left:  At Souq Waqif with friends after our camel dinner.

Above center:  Along with numerous restaurants, Souq Waqif has dozens of stalls with an eclectic and often surprising collection of goodies.

Above right:   Back at Carrefour, you can buy food from literally all over the world.

Food in the Middle East:  Part 2

Now that I have my own apartment, I usually cook at home, though I do eat out once in a while, especially on Thursday nights to kick off the weekend.  My favorite restaurant here is Shater Abbas, a fast-food restaurant where they serve Middle Eastern-style grilled meat, mostly on kebabs.  They serve it with a large, flat chewy Middle Eastern bread that’s baked fresh from a hot, brick oven.  The flat bread is something like a warm tortilla but is larger, thicker and much chewier, and is about the best bread I’ve ever eaten.  I usually order two of them, along with my meat dish and a large order of hummus that I dip my grilled meat into.  I’ve gotten hooked here on hummus.

 

Above:  Enjoying yet another Shater Abbas grilled meat platter at the City Center Mall food court, my Thursday night tradition.

I’ve also gotten hooked on dates – the kind you eat, not the kind you get dressed up for -- and especially during Ramadan.  Dates, with their sticky, caramel-like coating, are very popular here, in this land of dates.  Every year during Ramadan I buy a few boxes of them, like the boxes of Girl Scout “Thin Mint” cookies that I buy every spring in the U.S.

 

Almost every American fast-food chain can be found here in Doha, including KFC:  Kentucky Fried Chicken.  In fact, of all the fast-food American restaurants in the Middle East, by far the most popular is KFC.  Whether you’re in Dubai, Riyadh or Muscat, the most popular fast-food restaurant in town is KFC, and that’s true here in Doha, as well.  There’s a KFC at the City Center Mall food court, among the 20 other restaurants there, and it always has the longest line.  Arabs especially love KFC and there’s always a line of white-robed Arab men and black-robed Arab women waiting for their fried chicken, either Original Recipe or Extra Crispy.

 

I lived with a rotating mix of roommates at Asas apartments during my first few months in Qatar, before I got my own place at the Beverly Hills Tower, so I ate mostly takeout food then and didn’t cook at home much.  But now that I have my own apartment (which I share with my roommate, Arul) and have unpacked my cookware, I cook at home almost every night -- though I still buy a Little Burned Chicken with biriyani rice at Carrefour once in a while.  Carrefour, being a huge grocery store, is pretty well stocked, but their clientele is from literally all around the world, so you see all kinds of exotic foods on the shelves there.  At a Costco or Walmart back in the U.S., there might be a small section devoted to foreign or ethnic foods.  Well, that’s what the entire store here is like, so you can be adventurous and try things from all over the world (and I have).  Most of their food, though, is geared toward Arab, Indian and British palates.

 

Qatar’s incoming shipments of food are sporadic, so if you find something that you like at any grocery store here, you should buy a lot of it because you may not see it on the shelves again for several months, if ever.  I hit the jackpot a few months ago when I spotted my favorite barbeque sauce, K.C. Masterpiece, on the Carrefour shelves one night.  I bought eight bottles, which I cheerfully stuffed into my daypack at the checkout counter, feeling like I had just won the lottery.  They were sold out a few days later when I checked again, but I’m content because I still have four bottles of my prized sauce left. 

 

Above:  Food shipments in Qatar are sporadic.  So if you see something you like on the shelves here, buy a lot of it because you may not see it again for months.

I couldn’t believe my eyes a couple months ago when I walked down the aisles of Carrefour one evening and saw a large shipment of Old El Paso Mexican food on the shelves:  refried beans, taco shells and, best of all, real salsa.  This wasn’t the thin and sickeningly-sweet salsa they sell here from an Arab company called “Dolly’s” (Dolly has apparently never been to Mexico).  No, this was real Old El Paso salsa made with cilantro and big chunks of tomatoes.  My eyes got large (and then covetous) when I spotted that treasure trove of Old El Paso goodies, so I bought as much as I could carry home with me.  Then I went back the next night and bought another large stash:  in total, 12 large cans of refried beans, several boxes of taco shells and 15 bottles of salsa, which should last me about a year.  So long, Dolly!

 

I’ve been eating a lot of Arab and Indian food here – chicken tikka masala has become one of my favorites – while I carefully avoid most British food.  There are many more Brits in Qatar than Americans, as I’ve said before, and while most of them are nice, their food, frankly, is an “acquired taste,” let’s say.  Most British food is either extremely bland or is filled with fat and lard, or is just plain gross to us Americans (blood pudding, anyone?)  British food is not my cup of tea, you could say, but I have gotten hooked on what the English call “tea bread.”  These are pans of sweetened breads that I often eat for breakfast on weekend mornings as I watch my sporting events from America.  My favorite weekend breakfast is chocolate tea bread (which is like unfrosted brownies) slathered with butter, which I eat with bananas and milk.  There's nothing better in the morning.

 

By the way, there are no wells or streams in Qatar so all the drinking water here is desalinated from the ocean.  It tastes fine, but is slightly metallic.  Many large buildings have a water storage tank, usually near the top floor, and the tanks aren’t always cleaned as often as they should be.  So while the public water system is totally safe to drink, I use a Brita filter to help purify my water.  Many folks here opt instead to have five-gallon jugs of bottled water delivered to their doorstep, but you know me:  I'm too cheap (there's that word again).

 

To summarize, it’s taken me a while but I’ve gotten used to the food (and water) situation in Qatar and have really grown to love some of the Indian and Arab dishes that are common here.  The food situation, like everything else here, was an adjustment for me during my first few months in Qatar, but I survived because if you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat just about anything.  I don’t have that problem anymore, however, and now I worry more about my waistline expanding than shrinking. 

 

   

Above left:  The grilled meat platter at Shater Abbas is awesome.  The bread (left) is like a chewy tortilla and is delicious.  Beware of the green peppers (right), though.  They can burn your tongue off.  Ooh, hurts so good!

Above right:  Enjoying a delicious breakfast on the weekend with chocolate tea bread and butter.  I'm watching the volleyball match from Western Washington University, played a few hours earlier back in the States.

A Westerner’s Experience with Ramadan

You can’t talk about food without discussing Ramadan, which is the most important holiday in the Islam religion.  Ramadan lasts about a month, as measured by the moon, and is a time for Muslims to reflect on and to reaffirm their spiritual beliefs.  That’s done partly by fasting during the day, from sun up to sundown.  Muslims don’t eat or drink anything during daytime hours during the month of Ramadan.  After sunset, though, they celebrate with a large meal called Iftar, during which they often congregate, eat, drink, and be merry, and sometimes well past midnight.  Some of them eat too well during those nighttime feasts and have to go to the hospital from over-eating.  In fact, the hospitals in Doha are usually packed with patients during the month of Ramadan of those who’ve overindulged during Iftar.

 

The work schedule for most companies in the Middle East shifts during the month of Ramadan, generally with shorter work hours for everyone, even those who aren’t Muslim.  The Central Planning Office, where I work, is a good example.  Many or even most of the people at CPO are not Muslim, but instead of working our regular nine-hour days, from 7:30 until 5 p.m., our workday during Ramadan lasts only six hours and we go home around 1:30 p.m. each day.  Of course, as with most offices here, we don’t eat lunch during that time because that would be disrespectful to our Muslim colleagues who are fasting.  Most offices in Muslim countries, including CPO, have a small room where non-Muslims can eat or drink out-of-sight of their Muslim colleagues, if they need to.

 

Like most non-Muslims, I don’t fast during the entire month of Ramadan.  Heck, most non-Muslims don’t fast at all.  However, each year I do choose to fast on one day, to remind myself of the sacrifice that my Muslim friends and colleagues endure.  Not eating during the daylight hours isn’t too hard for me, but I have a difficult time not drinking anything, especially since I’m perpetually thirsty anyway and drink about twice as much as the average person.  Ramadan this past summer was in late June, the hottest time of the year, so that made it especially challenging. 

 

Above:  Celebrating Iftar with my good friends, Nafez and Shashi.

I fasted one day last summer, taking my last sip of water just before sunrise, then I worked all day in the CPO office.  In the afternoon, after work, I walked over to the City Center Mall.  Many stores there are closed during the daytime during Ramadan and the mall was mostly empty, but then the stores began opening around 5 p.m., an hour before sunset, and the foot traffic picked up.  By evening all the stores were open and the mall was livelier than ever.

 

After I’d walked around the mall a few times, I sat down on a bench around 5:30 p.m. and waited for the “call to prayer” on the loudspeakers, which signaled sunset (and typically a time for Muslims to pray).  I kept waiting and waiting, and my head was starting to get dizzy and my throat was parched.  I can’t imagine what working outside in the desert heat would be like for Muslims during this time of year.  But finally the Call to Prayer was issued and I walked over to the food court and ordered a big plate of Shater Abbas grilled meats and, especially, a large bottle of cold water. 

 

That once-a-Ramadan fasting gives me a taste (no pun intended) of the sacrifice that Muslims make during the holy month.  I must admit that I did feel a bit “purified,” for lack of a better word, afterwards for the personal sacrifice I had made that day.  But of course, the next day, it was back to stuffing myself with dates and KFC.  So much for my spiritual enlightenment!

 

The timing of the Ramadan holiday is based on the moon, so it shifts a week or so each year.  Last year, in 2013, Ramadan started in early July and next year it’ll start in mid-June.  Furthermore, the exact start of the holiday each year isn’t known until the new moon is actually spotted.  It’s not like American holidays, which always fall on the same day each year and are known well in advance.  Christmas, for example, is always on December 25 and Thanksgiving is always on the fourth Thursday in November.

 

The work schedule shortens abruptly during Ramadan, but you have to check the Internet (or your phone for texts) because it’s hard to know which day it will actually start.  Qatar follows the lead of Saudi Arabia, so if the clerics there see the new moon, they declare that Ramadan has started and the next day the shorter work schedule begins.  But if they don’t see the new moon – say, there’s cloud cover that night – then Ramadan hasn’t started yet.  By the next evening, though, they’ll usually declare that Ramadan has started, even if the moon is still covered with clouds.  These flexible holidays take some getting used to.

Christmas and Thanksgiving

You might think that no one in Qatar knows or cares about the American holiday of Thanksgiving, but you would be wrong because Thanksgiving is apparently becoming something of a worldwide holiday.  I realized this when I went shopping a few weeks ago, in mid-November, and saw a banner over the frozen foods section saying “Celebrate Thanksgiving” near a bin of frozen turkeys that were on sale.  Normally you can’t find turkeys, even the frozen kind, in Qatar but apparently you can buy turkeys here during the last few weeks of November.  And strangely enough, I saw some Indian families buying frozen turkeys (as I did, of course).

 

Above:  Celebrating Thanksgiving last week with Arul, my roommate, and Helen from the UK.

Not only did I buy a frozen turkey last week, but I also bought canned cranberries and mashed potatoes.  I even found a few boxes of stuffing sitting on the grocery shelves.  Then I whipped up a big Thanksgiving feast for Arul, my Indian roommate from San Jose, and myself.  I also invited Helen, a CPO co-worker from the U.K. who’s in Qatar temporarily helping me with some mapping work, over to our apartment.  I explained to her the American holiday of Thanksgiving and why Americans have to eat turkey on that special day.  Unfortunately there weren’t any football games to watch on TV, giving the Arab/British channels here.  There was British “football,” of course, also known as soccer, but it wasn’t the same as watching my favorite team, the Detroit Lions, lose badly – which, of course, is another favorite American Thanksgiving tradition. 

 

Helen wanted to know how the American holiday of Thanksgiving started, so while offering her a large platter of turkey, I told her about the Pilgrims and the Mayflower.  She was even more intrigued with how you can mix bland ingredients like cream of mushroom soup and green beans together to create the delicious Thanksgiving dish that Americans call “Green Bean Casserole.”  I gave her the recipe so she could take it with her back to London.

 

Above:  Holding a brown-hatted elf at Christmas last year, and a tree decorated with the famous Christmas Chicken (next to my shoulder).

Christmas is another holiday that you might think is non-existent here in the Muslim country of Qatar, but again, you would be wrong.  In fact, you would be really wrong.  Many hotel lobbies here are decked out with Christmas trees and trimmings each December and Carrefour starts selling Christmas items not in late November, like what happens in the U.S., but in mid-October.  By November, an entire section of Carrefour is packed with everything Christmasy, including some of the most elaborate artificial trees I’ve ever seen.  I bought a beautiful four-foot Christmas tree last December and put it up in my room again last week, along with Christmas ornaments that I also bought here, not having brought any from home.

 

The Christmas decorations, however, leave something to be desired because they were made in China and the concept of Christmas was apparently lost in translation.  The classic Christmas colors are red and green, of course, but many of the ornaments I bought here are, strangely enough, brown.  That includes a stuffed elf in brown garb, as well as a brown wreath (have you ever seen a brown wreath?)  And the Christmas tree ornaments that I bought at Carrefour also puzzled me.  As I write this, my tree is decorated with, among other things, a plastic apple (apples for Christmas?), a large mushroom (?), and a stuffed, four-inch long ornament of a chicken.  Few people realize this, but along with bringing baby Jesus the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the three magi also brought him the famous Christmas Chicken.  This is what happens when you buy Christmas ornaments made in China, I guess.  I laugh every time I look at all the crazy and inappropriate ornaments that decorate my little tree.

 

Above:  Ho, ho, ho.  Merry Christmas from Doha!

Speaking of strange things at holidays, last summer we had an “instant national holiday.”  The previous Emir (i.e., leader) of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, suddenly stepped down in June after ruling here for almost 20 years and gave the reins (or “reigns”) to his 32-year old son, Tamim.  It was, notably, the first peaceful transfer of power for any country in the Middle East.  The news was posted that evening at 8 p.m. along with a decree that the next day would be a national holiday, to honor the new leader.  My roommate at Asas mentioned it to me, that we didn’t have to go into work the next day.  I didn’t believe him at first, but then I checked the local news websites.  Gosh, I wish we had some of these “instant holidays” back in the U.S.!

 

There was another strange “holiday” situation last winter.  Qatar’s National Day, which is something like the Fourth of July in the U.S., is held on December 18 each year to celebrate the day in 1878 when the country was unified under a single leader.  National Day is usually a paid holiday in Qatar, but last year December 18 fell on a Friday, which is during the weekend.  If that sort of thing happens in the U.S., the paid holiday is celebrated on the following Monday, but there was no announcement about any sort of day off in association with Qatar’s National Day.  For weeks before the holiday, people all over Qatar wondered, “Will we have Thursday off?” and yet no official announcement was made. 

 

Finally, on Wednesday, the Emir announced that, yes, everyone will have the next day off.  So once again, we had an “instant holiday.”  The announcement could’ve easily been made weeks beforehand so that people could make plans, but I guess the Emir didn’t want everyone to leave the country on National Day.  I guess if I ran a country, I’d feel the same way.  Still, it was strange to get an email late on Wednesday afternoon from the Emir saying that everyone had the next day off.  This idea of flexible holidays, like National Days or with Ramadan, take some getting used to, like everything else here.

 

       

Above left:  My bedroom is ready for Christmas!

Above center:  I love my little tree.  The decorations are goofy, though, and make me laugh.

Above right:  I even love my brown-hatted elf that sits proudly on my nightstand.

Arabs and Americans

I couldn’t write a page about “Living in Qatar” without describing how Arabs here feel about Americans and what my personal interactions with Arabs here have been like.  A few weeks before I moved to Qatar, in the spring of 2013, I had some roofing work done on my house in Portland and I mentioned to the roofer that I was moving to the Middle East.  He was stunned, then he said, “Don’t they hate Americans over there?  Heck, if you say the wrong thing, they’ll chop your arms off.”  I had to suppress a laugh, having worked in the U.A.E. a few years earlier and never having seen an American with their arms chopped off.

 

It’s true that there’s no “free speech” here.  If you speak out publicly against the Emir, you may get into trouble, but that doesn’t bother me because I don’t usually talk about politics with people I don’t know or make political speeches on a street corner.  The English-language newspapers based in Qatar do occasionally criticize the government’s handling of certain topics, including how they haven’t done enough to curb the exploitation of low-wage construction workers imported from India and other countries (that criticism is totally justified, in my opinion).  Furthermore, Qatar is the home of Al Jazeera news, considered by many people around the world to be a fair and impartial news source.  But as for Arabs “hating” us Americans, that's ridiculous.

 

During the 18 months that I’ve been here, I haven’t had one bad experience with anyone because of my nationality.  I’m not saying that anti-American sentiment doesn’t exist here, because there are some Arabs here who have negative feelings about Westerners, and Americans in particular (just as there are Americans who feel the same way about Arabs).  But I personally haven’t experienced that animosity.  If anything, I’ve experienced just the opposite and the overriding feeling among Arabs towards Americans is much more curiosity than hatred.  When I’ve told Arabs or Muslims (they’re not the same thing, by the way) here that I’m American, their reaction is usually neutral or positive.  I’ve met a lot more Arabs (and Pakistanis and Indians, etc.) who’ve told me that they hope to visit America someday than have said anything bad about America – a number that is exactly zero.

 

 

Here's a Middle Eastern-themed song  called "Kecharitomene" by Loreena McKennitt I used this song in the "Qatar in One Day" video that I posted below.

   

I admit that many Arabs here are, in general, more “intense” or serious than many Americans, and that intensity takes some getting used to.  But it’s a cultural thing and doesn’t mean that they’re unfriendly or hateful.  It’s like the cultural difference between Germans (who have a reputation for being serious, private and even “cold”) and Italians (who are often outgoing, animated and exuberant).

 

Some Americans resent all Arabs partly because of the horrible terrorist events on September 11, 2001.  Because some people in the world now equate “Arab” with “terrorist,” I think some of the Arabs I’ve dealt with here feel ashamed, embarrassed or contrite about those terrible events.  That perhaps explains why I, being an American, haven’t faced any resentment here – just the opposite, in fact. 

 

In fact, Qatar is probably the safest place I've ever lived.  It's much safer than anyplace I've ever been in the U.S., given America's crazy obsession with guns and assault rifles.  When my friends in America ask me, "Weren't you afraid to move to the Middle East?" I always reply, "Not as afraid as I am when I come back here to the U.S."

 

I was devastated by the events of 9/11, as I described in one of my website's earliest entries, when I was in Bismarck, North Dakota.  But regarding how Americans feel about Arabs given the events of 9/11, I think Americans should direct their resentment or hatred towards those groups responsible, not towards all Arabs.  For some Americans, it’s just easier to hate all Arabs rather than do the work of sifting out who (and what) is responsible for terrorist activity from those people (and issues) that aren’t.  The fact is, many more Americans have died over the past 20 years from domestic terrorism, including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, than from foreign terrorism.

 

This is a touchy subject but I’m just describing what my personal experience has been here in Qatar.  I haven’t had one negative encounter, due to my nationality, during the time that I’ve been here:  no hatred directed towards me, no crime and no verbal assaults.  I wish I could say the same thing about my experiences back in America but I can’t.  If you disagree with me, you should come over here sometime and see for yourself. 

 

   

Above left:  The Central Planning Office had a "dhow cruise" last month.  We all sailed out into Doha Bay on a dhow like this.

Above right:  The dhow dropped anchor near an island and we ate a great buffet dinner.

 

       

Above left:  My CPO friends, Nafez and Mubeen on the dhow cruise.

Above center:  Sunset over Doha.

Above right:  Helen from the UK joined us.  Everyone had a great time.

Qatar in One Day

I’m including here a short video of a trip that I took around the entire country of Qatar last spring with one of my colleagues from work, Shashi.  Shashi, a bright, young fellow from India who helps Nafez run the IT system in our office, is a great guy and, as with Nafez, he and I have become good friends.  That’s partly because Nafez, Shashi and I all work within a few feet of each other and face each every day, quite literally, because we have an open seating design at our office with low partitions.  The three of us joke and tell stories quite often.  It’s amazing that we get any work done, in fact.

 

 

Above:  Here's a six-minute video of our trip around the country.

I knew there wasn’t much to see in Qatar, but I still wanted to travel around the country, having lived here for a year but not having a car.  So one day last spring I hired a driver and paid him to drive me around all around Qatar, from top to bottom and from east to west.  Qatar is about the size of Connecticut and has few roads, so it’s quite possible to “see” the entire country in one day.  Shashi wanted to join me and I welcomed him along.

 

Our driver, Padam, who was from Nepal, picked up Shashi and me at the Beverly Hills Tower in Doha at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, then we headed north for a couple hours, to the northernmost point of Qatar, then drove south for a few hours, and then back to Doha, getting back around 4:30 p.m.  I videotaped much of our trip, which I later condensed into a six-minute video and have posted here.

 

Our cheerful and friendly driver, Padam, had been driving in Qatar for eight years.  When we got back to Doha that afternoon, I asked him how many people had ever hired him to drive completely around Qatar in one day, so they could see the entire country.  He replied with a smile, “No one.  You’re the first!”

 

       

Above left:  Shashi before leaving on our all-day trip around Qatar last spring.

Above center:  Our driver, Padam, from Nepal.

Above right:  The freeways in Qatar are modern and well-maintained.  All road signs in Qatar are in both English and Arabic.

 

       

Above left:  Fort Zubarah, Qatar's only UNESCO World Heritage site.  This is the site of an ancient pearl-harvesting settlement.  Before oil was discovered in the 1950s, pearling was the mainstay of Qatar's economy.

Above center:  Shashi and I at Zubarah.  It was over 100 degrees on this March day.

Above right:  Camel crossing.

My 2013 Trip to the U.S.

To conclude this lengthy webpage, I’ve posted here several photos of my trips back to America, in the fall of 2013 and again last summer, in 2014.  I get six weeks of vacation each year, as I mentioned, because I work for a British firm in Qatar.  So if you're an American, here's a tip:  Work for a British company.

 

The highlight, if you could call it that, of my week-long trip back to the U.S. in the fall of 2013 was coming down with pneumonia.  I had worked in Qatar for five months and flew back to the U.S. in October to spend what I hoped would be a "relaxing" week there.  I flew from Doha to London and changed planes in Heathrow Airport for my flight to Portland but was late for my plane, so I had to literally run through the airport.  But then I had to stop because I was short of breath.  “That’s strange,” I said to myself, because I had never felt that way before.  I didn’t realize that it was the onset of pneumonia.

 

Above:  My cousin Steve and I in Dallas.

A few days later, while visiting my cousin Steve in Dallas, Texas, my breathing became more labored and painful, and it got so bad that I was unable to sleep that night.  Steve was sleeping on the couch, having kindly offered me his bedroom, so I walking into the living room at 4 a.m. and woke him up, saying, “Hey Steve.  Steve, wake up.”  He groggily woke up, then I said, “Hey, do you know a good Emergency Room around here?  But don’t get up.” 

 

That was kind of humorous in retrospect, but Steve immediately bolted upright in a panic, then he drove me to a Dallas hospital at 4:30 a.m.  I spent four hours sitting in the examination room there, getting a CAT scan and an x-ray, and finally got some antibiotics after the doctor confirmed what I had told her, that I thought I had pneumonia.

 

The total cost of my four-hour stay in the Emergency Room to treat the pneumonia was $12,700.  Yes, that’s right:  $12,700 for four hours in the hospital, and I wasn’t even admitted.  Furthermore, my insurance company agreed to pay only $5,000 of the bill because the service had been rendered in America, where they exclude most coverage because health-care costs there are so ridiculously expensive.  Therefore, I had to pay the balance of $7,700 (yikes!)  If I'd gotten treated in Qatar, my total medical bill would've been exactly $0 because health-care in Qatar is free. 

 

So here's another tip if you're an American:  Don't get sick.

 

         

Above left:  Enjoying a football game at Lewis and Clark College in Portland during my brief trip back to America in October 2013.  How I miss watching football!

Above center:  The cheerful patient.  This was in the Dallas Emergency Room, where I got treated for pneumonia.  I wasn't so cheerful, though, after I got the bill:  $12,700 for a four-hour stay.

Above right:  Visiting my dear old friend, Joan, in Austin a few days later.  Not wanting to give her pneumonia, I stayed outside on the patio and she stayed in her house.  We visited through her screen door.

 

       

Above left:  I drove to San Antonio and visited the Alamo for the first time, spending several hours here.

Above center:  Then it was back to Oregon.  This is Netarts Spit on the Oregon coast.

Above right:  Loading up with lots of smoked salmon at Barnacle Bill's in Lincoln City.  I've been visiting this historic seafood takeout place since I was four years old.

 

   

Above left:  The Columbia River Bridge at Astoria, Oregon.

Above right:  Visiting my sister Doti at her home in Bellingham, Washington the night before I flew back to Qatar.

My 2014 Trip to the U.S.

My trip back to America in the summer of 2014 was much smoother, healthier and cheaper.  I left Doha on August 15 and returned to Qatar in mid-September after spending about a month in the U.S.

 

After leaving Doha, I flew into JFK Airport in New York City and visited my brother Don and his wife, Debbie, in Connecticut for a few days, then I flew on to Minneapolis to visit my old friend, Mark.  I continued west from there, flying to Portland, then I drove around the west coast for a few weeks before flying 23 hours back to Qatar.  I dearly missed America and all things (well, most things) American, and I had a great time. 

 

I’ve titled this page “Living in Qatar."  However, I think the best thing about living in Qatar is going back home to America once in a while.

 

       

Above left:  I flew into JFK Airport in New York City then drove to the end of Long Island and took this ferry over to Connecticut.  This is a former U.S. Navy ship, the LST 510, which, amazingly enough, fought at D-Day in France in 1944.  Now it ferries cars across Long Island Sound.  It was a thrill just to ride on this historic ship.

Above center:  With my sister-in-law, Debbie, at a seafood market in New London, Connecticut.

Above right:  Don and Debbie, with Debbie's father, Dan, at their house in New London.

 

       

Above left:  The USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-powered submarine.  In 1958, it became the first submarine to sail under the North Pole.

Above center:  The Navy's Submarine School in Groton, Connecticut.  My dad trained here with the Navy after World War II and was certified to captain a submarine.

Above right:  Mystic Pizza in Mystic, Connecticut, site of the Julia Roberts (et al) movie from 1988.

 

       

Above left:  The historic 1800's whaler, Charles W. Morgan, at Mystic Seaport, a few miles from New London.

Above center:  Setting the sails.

Above right:  Two days later on the west coast.  These are my friends Lisa, Mark and Carl at a Hillsboro Hops minor league baseball game in Portland.

 

       

Above left:  With my friend, Heather (and her Camel Cup from Qatar) in downtown Portland.

Above center:  Otter Crest, from Cape Foulweather on the Oregon coast.  The cape was named by the intrepid British explorer, Captain James Cook in 1778.  He visited, as you can guess, when the weather here was foul.

Above right:  Camping at Honeyman State Park on the central Oregon coast.

 

       

Above left:  Cleawox Lake on the central Oregon Coast.

Above center:  Hiking through the dunes.

Above right:  Paul Bunyan and Babe at the Trees of Mystery in northern California.

 

   

Above left:  A squirrel's eye-view of the Redwood trees in northern California.

Above right:  This is the most photographed bridge in Big Sur on California Highway 1.  My great-uncle, Henry Swang, helped build this bridge in 1932.  A few years later, Henry helped build the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

 

       

Above left:  The Big Sur coastline in central California.

Above center:  At the San Diego Zoo.  I'm not a big fan of zoos, in general, but I really loved this place.  Highly recommended!

Above right:  With my lifelong friend, Troy, at the San Diego Zoo.  That's his wife, Carlye, and daughter Renee.

 

       

Above left:  Me and Troy, who's wearing a souvenir headdress that I'd brought from Qatar.

Above center:  Heading north through the Mojave Desert in eastern California.

Above right:  Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park.

 

   

Above left:  King's Creek in Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California.

Above right:  Bumpass Hell, a geothermal area in Lassen Volcanic National Park.  This place is something like a mini-Yellowstone.

 

       

Above left:  Exploring a lava cave in Lava Beds National Monument in northern California.  It was over 90 degrees outside but a constant 55 degrees inside the cave.

Above center:  Wizard Island at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.

Above right:  My sister's living room at her house in Bellingham, Washington.  My parents lived in this house for many years and I have a lot of fond memories here -- especially of their living room.

 

   

Above left:  My sister Doti with a souvenir camel that I'd brought her from Qatar.  I think she loves the camel more than me!

Above right:  Sol Duc Falls in Olympic National Park in Washington.

 

       

Above left:  Ruby Beach in Olympic National Park.

Above center:  Unpacking at Lisa and Carl's house in Portland, shortly before I flew back to Qatar.

Above right:  Sunset over JFK in New York during my 23-hour, three-leg flight back to Doha. 

 


 

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