Living in a foreign country and experiencing a new and, oftentimes, very different culture is not for every one. But for those of us who have accepted the challenge, each day offers up different perspectives, challenges and sometimes head-shaking disbelief. Come along and explore some of the commonplace sights and customs in Qatar – and the Middle East in general – that are unfamiliar to most Americans.
Bedouins traveling with their camels throughout the desert needed enough water to reach the next well. To refuse a traveler refreshment in such a place as the desolate desert is to let him die.
Nomadic traveling in the harsh desert climate necessitated the need for water. Bedouins have always been welcomed when stopping for water. That tradition continues today. The Arab Bedouin culture of hospitality is as strong today as it was in the past.
In many areas of Doha, especially the traditional Bedouin areas, water spigots are lined along the sidewalks for laborers and anyone else needing a refreshing cup of water. This is in addition to all mosques that have the water stations from which Muslims will wash their hands and feet before entering the mosque to pray. Because we live in a former Bedouin neighborhood, there are numerous water stations – at least one per block – on area streets.
An important aspect of the Arab culture is communication. During the Bedouin times, Arabs had dedicated tents where tribal men would meet daily to discuss community issues. Majlis is an Arabic word meaning “meeting”, which is why the tents are known as majlis tents. In modern times, this type of tent is still very common. For those who do not have one of these semi-permanent structures erected on their property, a room at the front of the house – usually with a separate door – comprises a house majlis. In addition to meetings and current day get-togethers, particularly during the two major religious Eid celebrations, feasts and other celebrations are held in the majlis. In more affluent homes, there is a separate dedicated majlis for both men and women for these purposes.
The traditional “tent” majlis, which has windows and air conditioning, is constructed of heavy traditional black and brown fabric. There has been recent controversy about its safety as the fabric is extremely flammable.
The typical seating in a majlis are dark red/black cushions that sit low to the floor. In homes with majlises, usual furniture is found. All seating, however, is arranged along walls usually on all four sides of the room. Most men and boys will dress in traditional/national dress when attending a majlis, and especially if it is on Eid.
Another tent commonly seen across the Middle East is the wedding tent. These large white tents with chairs stacked along the walls are the site of a male wedding celebration. The male wedding is typically held in an outdoor tent, either in traditional Bedouin style with an open front and traditional red covered cushions, or the modern elaborate tent which can include air conditioning units and other amenities.
The tent and its location depend on the preferences of the groom’s family. After ritual greetings between the groom, his family members, the bride’s male family members, and all of the male guests, there may be men who dance with swords or musical performances by an oud player on the traditional stringed instrument. Women are not allowed at this event. Most wedding celebrations are videotaped for the bride to watch at a later date. The bride’s celebration is held at a hotel.
Here in Qatar, it is a common sight to see what I call guard shacks that double as the “security guard’s” one-room home. These quarters are usually located on or near the street of a villa. Crime is rare in Qatar, so I’ve always been a bit confused as to the reason for these structures; nevertheless, they are seen everywhere.
Unskilled laborers are mostly housed in quarters provided by their employer while the semi-skilled laborers seem to have accommodations that they still share with others, but not to the large extent that the unskilled laborers do. The large scale accommodations are called labor camps and until recently have housed men in barrack-style rooms with stacked bunkbeds. The UN and U.S. Human Rights groups have cracked down on these employers, both here and in other Gulf countries.
Fortunately, everyone speaks English here and I have not had any language barrier issues. The same was true for Bahrain. The nationals, however, seem to respect expats more if they speak some Arabic, even if it’s simply shukran (thank you). All signage is in both English and Arabic. The written Arabic language is very beautiful and can be in formal calligraphy as well as “standard” Arabic.
Billboards are usually in English and Arabic, although I’ve seen some in Arabic only. Over here the billboards are different than those we are used to in the States. They are fabric rather than paper and it can easily take a dozen men to hang the billboard.
A very interesting recent campaign underway is for residents to learn their address. There has never been residential mail delivery in Qatar simply because up until recently, there were no house numbers and people had no need to know this information. With the new awareness campaign, necessary so that first responders can locate a dwelling or business in the event of an emergency, everyone is being asked to memorize and learn their house address. Seems basic to us, but it is a very new concept over here. Billboards are everywhere.
Somehow I don’t think I will ever adjust to the sight of animal transport whether it is a camel, horse or sheep. In the U.S. we would never see animals transported in the back of a pickup truck, which is the only way I’ve seen them here. It seems so inhumane.
The Squatty Potty
Excuse me? Yes, the tradiional toilet for women is, for lack of a better term, a hole in the floor. All public restrooms have at least one of these, which are comically known as squatty potties. I was forced to use one once, and it was not a pleasant experience.
It’s difficult to not be judgmental sometimes, so I try to keep an open mind and enjoy this cultural immersion for what it is. Qatar is still considered an emerging country, as are most Middle East countries. Most of them have only been independent entities from the British since the 1970s.