Thursday, January 17, 2008


A friend in Pittsburgh asked me about my exposure to Qatari culture, religion, etc. I've hesitated commenting too much on either so far because, frankly, living in a compound with mostly Westerners, my exposure has been pretty minimal.

When we decided to come to Doha, all the reading I did beforehand pointed to the fact that I might get a glimpse into Arab culture, but not specifically Qatari culture or Muslim culture, particularly since we're here for such a relatively short period of time. After 2 1/2 weeks, I can make a few observations, but I may need to revise those before we leave. Or perhaps I'll just be able to add to them.

This is a fairly liberal country when you compare it to Afghanistan or Iraq. But conservative when compared to the UAE (Dubai in particular) or Bahrain (so I hear). By liberal, I mean Westernized. Granted, there are Western malls here with Western shops, even a few bars. But the store dummies in those shops are modestly dressed and public intoxication is against the law. There is only one liquor store in the entire city, and how much you can buy in a month is determined by your income. You can't drink more than a certain percentage of it, so your "pay stub" is required when purchasing alcohol.

I've been to several of the malls here, and most women are in abayas and men are in thobes. The store employees are not in traditional dress, so you can assume they're not Muslim (generally Indian, Filipino, or Sri Lankan). You'll see the occasional woman in black dress with only a head scarf, but I'd say 99% wear the full hijab. (The Qatari women in Ron's class at school all wear theirs.) Back in Pittsburgh when I shop, I avoid the malls. I get a crowded-in sense there, this mass of humanity all pressed up against itself--even when it's not crowded. Shopping here is quite a different experience for me, a very isolated one. When the women around you have all but their eyes covered, it's hard to make contact with them. Are they looking at me? Are they smiling? Sneering? Curious? Annoyed? And the men, although their faces aren't covered, obviously avoid looking at you as well. It would be improper, if only to nod and say hello.

Now, if I were to say I like the sense of modesty, like not seeing flesh dripping over low-rise jeans or people spilling out of too-small tank tops or bubbling out of too-short tees, I'm afraid I'd sound ready to sign up for forcing women to cover up all over the world. I know some women in their hijab loathe the dress and yearn to break free of it. I know for many--whether here or elsewhere--it's a sign of oppression and a too-strict religious code that's gone beyond what their scripture requires, which is to cover their hair. But to see 12-year-olds in the U.S. dressing like strippers funded by their own parents? I can see why many Arabs loathe the thought of Western so-called culture oozing its way into their countries. An Iranian friend here doesn't believe Doha will ever be as open to the West as Dubai is.

As for the religious culture here, the biggest indication that people are guided by their Muslim beliefs--aside from their dress--is the call to prayer, sounded five times a day. I was talking to a neighbor shortly after we first arrived. She's Muslim and her family is from Kuwait, having left there after the war began. We heard the evening call to prayer while we talked, after which she excused herself to go inside to pray. The nearby mosque is directly behind our compound, so we hear it loud and clear each time. Here's a link to what the call to prayer sounds like. There are loads of places online where you can find it, but this one is closest to what we hear. Just skip down to the bottom of the blogger's page and click on the video.

Listening to this, you can see why O nearly fell out of the bed in fear the first time he heard it. It was 5 a.m. our first full day here, and when it woke me, I realized I'd forgotten to warn the kids and ran to the bedroom O and E share, sure they'd be frightened. To be 8 years old in a new house in a new country and to hear this in a tile-floored home that echoes like the Grand Canyon was a pretty terrifying experience for him. I told a neighbor about it, and she said that when she and her family arrived, her children--8 and 10 at the time--woke up as well and ran to their parents' room, convinced the house was haunted. Now my kids all sleep through it, although I don't. But I don't mind either. It's a nice reminder to me of where I am. This country lives its religion. It's not a peripheral consideration during the day; it is their day.

1 comment:

Brigid said...

I'm going to have to check out that link from home, since we can't listen here. I can't imagine hearing the call to prayer that many times a day.

And I definitely can't imagine walking amongst women who were covered except for their eyes. Incredible.