Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Reflections on the Gulf

I've had over a week to start to digest my experience in Qatar. It's been an interesting process.

Frankly, I never would have gone there were it not for PH's family being there. Not a place I really had a desire to visit. I went with some misgivings, given the political situation.

I was very surprised by how I fell in love with it.

It's not the most beautiful of places. Qatar, in particular, is mostly desert, although the bay the corniche winds around is a beautiful teal blue.
The construction is mostly new (the joke is that the national bird is the crane...as in construction crane). Nonetheless, even in the new construction, all the architectural references are to we would call Moorish design. No two buildings are alike, even in new housing developments. Out in the desert, the wind-carved sand dunes are beautiful abstractions.

The people are generally friendly; if not friendly, they're at least polite and hospitable, particularly if treated with respect (more on that later). Men wear white thobes (long outfits that look like white dress shirts that grew down to the ground) and ghutras (I think I've got the spelling right), which are the white or red-and-white scarves held in place by two black coils at the crown of the head. The coils are supposed to be the ropes that these men used to use to hobble their camels, but since today most drive Beemers and Benzes, they're simply decorative. Some men from other regions of the Gulf wear different headgear - Omanis, for example, wear what look like embroidered pillboxes. Native women wear black abayas (floor-length cloaks) and headscarves called sheylas. Some women wear face veils as well, or a rather odd starched black nose cover. Often the abayas are beautifully embroidered. The most conservative women wear black gloves as well. The young men in the shopping malls are like young men in the US, except they adjust their ghutras very precisely, often at a rakish angle, much like our teenage boys adjust their backward baseball caps here in our malls, hoping to impress by their stylishness.

The expectation for non-Muslim women is that we dress modestly - no bare knees or shoulders, though slacks and capris are OK. No need for scarves.

The children are incredibly beautiful, with black eyes and lashes out to there. Usually, they have curly black hair.

We spent a goodly amount of time in the souqs, shopping. The people all spoke at least a tiny bit of English, certainly more than my Arabic, which is limited to inshallah (God willing), alhamdullilah (thanks be to God), salaam aleikum (peace to you), and shuqan(thanks). They were invariably very polite. Prices were always quoted "before discount." Yes, you do haggle, but always politely. The only sad exception to this was when we went to the rug souq. After finalizing our purchase of a lovely rug from Turkmenistan, we waited for the assistants to wrap it up. In came another American woman, who asked to see some high-end silk-on-silk rugs. These rugs were simply amazing; as you looked at them from different angles, the color changed, due to the sheen of the silk. Some were over 1200 stitches per inch, all made by hand. She was very rude and dismissive to the shop owner, who had been so kind to us, bringing us drinks (even while looking at $10,000 rugs!) and talking about how he was hoping his son would get into Texas A&M. She said, "I'm no tourist, I live here." As if this would merit special treatment. I was embarrassed by her, as she tried to insult her way to a lower price.

In the gold souq, once again the shopkeepers were very welcoming, and willing to bargain. PH bought me a little gold ring at a fraction of the price in the US. We had delightful conversations with several shopkeepers, who were curious about where we came from and what had brought us to Doha.

The spice souq, also called the Iranian souq, was the oldest and most primitive. People sitting on the ground hammering metals, weaving baskets. Men on stools selling not only cardamom and cumin, but frankincense. It felt like we had been carried back to ancient times.

We went to a tailor who made PH a new suit - Italian wool - custom made, in five days. Exquisite. $165. I had brought a clerical shirt, which, as you fellow Anglicans/Episcopalians know, usually costs between $55 and $75 a pop. Got five copies made in various fabrics. $12 each. The tailor was a sweetheart. His assistant, an Indian young man from Karela, was busy practicing his English on us. Suffice to say, once again, his English was a heckuva lot better than our Hindi.

We had the pleasure of participating in the Anglican service. PH preached and I sang. The officiant was a wonderful Scottish priest who has been in the Gulf for twenty years. We had a great conversation about how he had gotten there, and about my process of discernment. He offered me the opportunity to come back, perhaps as a field ed project, once I got into seminary. I may well take him up on it. It was fascinating to me to see how gracefully he managed a highly diverse congregation (American, British, Canadian, Indian,. Sri Lankan, Ghanaian, Nigerian) with a broad range of liturgical traditions and equally broad range of theological thinking. He has managed to survive in this world as part of the minority within a Muslim nation sufficiently well that the Sheikha is helping to fund the building of a church (they currently meet in a school). She is also helping fund the building of a Catholic Church. There are lessons to be learned from him.

It's what I'd characterize as a progressive but observant Muslim country. You are awakened at 4:30 in the morning by the muezzins' call to prayer. If you drive by a construction site after the call to prayer, you see workers prostrated on prayer rugs facing Mecca. Ramadan is strictly observed, to the point that the American school covers the windows of its cafeteria during that month of daily fasting so as not to offend. Yet the young women take classes with the young men in the university, and can drive, unlike in Saudi Arabia, and will usually converse with non-Muslim women.

And, oh, the sky at night in the desert! All of God's stars right there to see!

As I said at the start of this post, I'm still processing the experience (as well as the jet lag - 8 hours time difference) and trying to understand why I was so entranced. I do know I want to go back, if not to Qatar, then to Jordan to see Petra and Beirut to visit friends of PH. Maybe I'm getting more adventurous in my middle years. Maybe there's work for me to do. I am grateful, though, to have had this chance to see a different world, and to understand it in a way a didn't before.

Thanks be to God.


reverendmother said...

Thank you for broadening MY horizons!

Teri said...

thank you for your reflections on this! Living in what is supposedly a "moderate" Muslim culture is really strange and sometimes frustrating, and I love hearing about people's visits to other places. Perhaps your next visit can be to Egypt, and then you can tell me whether I should seek my next assignment (after this year is over) somewhere else!