Tag Archives: 2014

Bait Al Zubair – Muscat’s Heritage Through the Sands of Time

All countries have a custodial and moral responsibility to shape and protect their culture. And to keep alive the past’s history, culture and traditions about a people is a significant role – not only for the next generation, but also for visitors curious about a country’s heritage.

Bait Al Zubair (House of Al Zubair) is a private museum that opened to the public in 1998. Located in the former Sheikh Al Zubair bin Ali Zubair family house in Old Muscat, built in 1914, it displays the Zubair family’s private collection of Omani artifacts, including clothing, household items, artwork and maps, and swords and firearms, with detailed descriptions as to their origin and use.

No graceful architecture and no opulent furnishings, no sweeping views of elaborate staircases. Nevertheless, the individually-styled museum features century old, authentic Omani displays resonating from the past.

The explanations are excellent, and although the museum is small, it was well organized and very educational. The complex is broken into four individual buildings showcasing clothing and furniture along with weapons, early maps and prints of the Arabian Peninsula, typical Muscati furniture, a replicated Omani Bedouin home within a garden setting, a gift shop, and art gallery/coffee shop. The latter was under renovation the day we visited.

Set up as a self-guided experience, we spent two hours at Bait Al Zubair, and enjoyed every minute. The artifacts were impressive and with the explanations so detailed, time-honored traditions came to life.

Omani womens traditional dressOmani Clothing
Omani women have distinctive, colorful national dresses that vary widely from region to region. Women’s attire is often complex consisting of many layers. Clothing is frequently handmade and usually features intricate embroidery around the neck, wrists and ankles. An Omani girl would usually start to cover her hair at puberty, and if it is her tribal custom, she may also veil or mask her face.

Jewelry is very important to the Omani women. Jewelry designs are ornate and can feature Quranic and Arabic script, geometric patterns, and stylized floral decorations.

The dishdashe, the Omani national dress for men, is a simple white or ivory gown. Men wear matching pants underneath. The dishdashe has a single tassel at the neck that can be perfumed. On formal occasions, a kanjhar (the Omani dagger) would be worn on a belt around the waist with a bisht, usually a brown, cream or black translucent cloak etched with gold or silver trimmings. The man’s head would be covered with a turban called a msarr.

The shal, a long strip of fabric, is worn around the waist of the dishdashe with a kanjhar (dagger) tucked into it. The shal and the msarr (the turban worn by Omani men and usually made from embroidered cotton or wool) will always be the same design of material and come as a set. When the shal is worn, the bisht is usually not, at least not in the Muscat area.

Kummah is a simple cap for everyday use for males. It consists of two pieces of cloth sewn together, a circular top with a rectangular strip attached to form the sides. The cap is made of crisp white cotton that is embroidered in many different colors with unique, highly decorative designs. Traditionally, the women in the family would make them for their menfolk.Omani kummahs

Other male accessories include the Al Mhahil, Al Abzim and the midwakh/mushrab. The latter is a small silver pipe used by the Bedouin, and its style varies from region to region.

Mhahil are silver kohl containers that were used by men. Kohl was applied to the eyes to protect them from the sun. The containers were hung from belts or stored in the headdress. Baseball players in the U.S. put this black kohl under their eyes today to block the sun. The containers are bullet shaped with an application stick fastened to a chain on its lid. It is often highly decorated with floral or geometric designs, and worn exclusively by men.

Al abzim are belt buckles that can be divided into three major categories. Two types are worn on an embroidered belt, one of which opens in the center, and the other opens at the side. The third type is a small buckle that fastens the kanjhar, gun powdered horn strap or a sword belt. The mahfadh is a decorative silver cover for a pocket on the kanjhar or a bullet belt.

The Household
The home is a place of comfort and security and plays a very important part in Omani family life. The Omani people are renowned for their hospitality, which I observed firsthand. The legacy of a desert-dwelling culture where a friendly welcome and the offer of refreshment have always been the established custom still survives. Today, visitors to an Omani home will invariably be offered halwa, a gelatinous sweet meat greatly enjoyed in Oman. This is traditionally followed by kalwa (Arabic coffee flavored with cardamom).

Zubar dallah coffee potDallah is the coffee pot made from copper and brass. The Omani coffee pot design features a hinged lid attached to the handle and a curved spout. Some coffee pots were made out of silver and mostly used for decorative purposes. Coffee pots are still manufactured primarily in Nizwa, using the same traditional craftsmanship as before. Sahalah are Bedouin drinking vessels, which look to be made of copper. They would be hooked to the side of camel trappings.

Incense burners and rosewater sprinklers made of engraved and decorated silver are all items commonly used throughout Oman. After guests are served coffee, they are offered rosewater sprinkled over their hands. Incense burners are then taken around to the guests who can enjoy the scents that rise from the Frankincense oud.

Ornate incense burners called magmar are made from clay or silver. They can also be made of wood; however, the Bedouin type is clay. Hot coals are placed in it, which is then sprinkled with incense to produce the perfumed smoke.

What Americans know as a hope chest, Omanis call sandouq. These wooden chests with ornate tops decorated with carvings and brass, serve a multitude of purposes, and can be dated back to the 16th century. Different styles found reflect the Sultanate’s rich sea-faring heritage with influences from Persia, Asia and Africa. Chests in Oman are a very important part of the home and were generally given full of treasures as a bridal gift to girls getting married.

Swords and Firearms

Omani kanjharThe Kanjhar
Omanis are historically renowned for their prowess and swordsmanship, according to information at Bait al Zubair. From early descriptions, Oman men were traditionally armed with a sword and a dagger.

This dagger, known as a kanjhar in Oman, is curved and worn on an embroidered belt. The kanjhar is an essential part of male dress and symbolizes manhood, courage and tradition. The ornate silver and gold work on the kanjhar reflect techniques and craftsmanship passed down through families from father to son, and it is this that sets them apart from other regional daggers.

Omani sword styles have remained essentially the same for 600 years, where the sword was used as a weapon until the introduction of the rifle in the 19th century.

The saif is an Omani straight sword with intricately cast and engraved silver mounts. It is particularly rare. These swords would also have been disguised as a walking stick when it had the scabbard on, a use still common today. This type of Omani sword has a flamboyant early 17th century double-edged blade that is extremely sharp.

The gracefully curved blade Omani sword, with a Yemeni influence, is known as a kitarah. These swords usually have an ivory grip bound with silver or gold wire and decorations. The blade is usually made of Damascus watered steel with patterns that resemble ripples of water, and created on the blade by highly specialized forging and fabrication techniques.

Modern Rifles
The matchlock, known in Oman as the abu satiyalah, the user of the match, was first featured in Arabia in the 16th century. It was probably invented in many places quite independently in the 15th century as a natural progression from the hand cannon. By the 17th century, matchlocks were manufactured in Oman’s interior and were in great demand until the 1880s when they were replaced by the rifle.

With the introduction of the modern rifle late in the 19th century (1897-1898) in Oman, Muscat became established as the center for arms and ammunition traffic and trade in the region supplying the Gulf area including Persia and Afghanistan.

bullet beltThe mahzam, a bullet belt, held a variety of different sized cartridges for matchlocks or rifles. The belt for the matchlock held cartridges with enough powder for a single shot. These belts were often elaborately woven with silver thread and usually had small pouches on either side of the buckle for keeping small items safe.

In Oman, rifles were brought out in times of war and times of peace. They were also used for hunting. At weddings and Eid festivities, rifles are fired into the sky to add excitement to the celebrations.

As we finished in the main portion of the museum, we made our way to a second building housing artwork, Arabian Peninsula maps and early printmaking items. Typical furniture dating back 100 years was featured on the first floor, along with Sheikh Zubair’s office furniture, while subsequent floors displayed artwork and the maps, a renewed geography lesson for me.

Fine Arts
Prior to the 18th and 19th centuries AD, few people from the west had traveled to the Arabian Peninsula and east Africa due to adverse natural climatic, economic, religious and social conditions. It was, therefore, difficult for artists producing prints to draw from life, so they would have relied on previous artwork, and travelers’ and explorers’ accounts of a place or people. Artists that traveled to the places specifically to record them visually, originally sketched some of the artwork, while others are artist impressions that were then made into prints that would have been hand colored. There is also an extensive display of historic cameras.

Once hidden in dusty periodicals or travelers’ accounts recounting the Arabian Peninsula and east Africa, from 1670 AD until the end of the 19th century, these prints are important works of art from Europe originating predominantly from the United Kingdom, Germany and France. They can be considered among the first images of Oman and the region prior to photography, and feature historic pictures of the royal family and their court, gifts and palaces. Muscat and other locations in Oman, as well as people, costumes, camels and education are also featured artwork. These prints are important to the world because they impart geographic and cultural information about the Arabian Peninsula, and serve as valuable historical and artistic documents. Although they were reproduced many times when first made, they are now very rare. These prints provide data available in past times and those on display showing the Arabic Peninsula represent a period of about 200 years dating from the 17th – 19th centuries AD.

Printmaking was the essential medium for communication prior to photography, and is a method of making multiple works of art by transferring images, texts and colors, usually to paper on a printing press, through a variety of processes. The prints on display were mostly made of wood, copper and steel engraving in chromolithography.pritns of Oman coastline

There are many different methods of printmaking that have evolved over hundreds of years. Engraving is one of these earliest forms. For thousands of years this technique was used to embellish seals, jewelry and metalwork.

Outside and part of the museum grounds is a gorgeous garden that features a traditional barasti (palm frond) hut, a falaj (ancient water distribution system) and a small-scale replicated souq area. At the far end is a model scale city of Muscat in the old days.

painted-oryxColorfully painted oryx are lined up along the various buildings welcoming visitors to the museum.

This house that became a museum has a lot to say through its images and information from the canvas of life for visitors to learn and draw from, thus enriching and influencing its Muscati society in a positive way. If you go to Muscat, I highly recommend a visit to Bait Al Zubair.

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Celebrating Palestinian Heritage in Doha, Qatar

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Bathed in black, the jubilant men methodically made their way in my direction amid drumming, clapping and shouts of well wishes. As they came into view, the groom was quickly hoisted up onto the shoulders of two men in the wedding procession while the bride, the only woman, followed behind. Garbed in a white traditional gown with a red patterned bodice and wearing a matching red and white headscarf dotted with jewelry pieces dangling against her forehead, the Palestinian bride took her place in the spotlight alongside her husband-to-be. The audience in the overflowing room of now standing-only spectators was about to witness the enactment of a traditional Palestinian wedding. The dozen male performers, heads swathed in the commonly wrapped black and white checkered scarves securely tied in the back, enthusiastically danced reminiscent of a New York chorus line. It was an incredible experience.

The wedding enactment was just one of the highlights of the inaugural Palestinian Heritage Week recently held at Katara the Cultural Village in Doha, Qatar, and co-sponsored by Katara and the Qatar-Palestinian Friendship Association.Image

In addition to the live wedding enactment, the Ibdaa Palestinian Troupe, who were featured in the wedding, performed 30 minutes’ worth of lively and high energy folk dances. “This traditional folk dance extends for numerous years and features holding of hands to reflect the unity and solidarity of Palestinians,” explained the festival organizer.

Ibdaa, which means ‘to create something out of nothing’, is a grassroots initiative of Dheisheh Refugee Camp. Founded in 1995, Ibdaa reportedly serves more than 1500 children and young people annually through various programs, while providing job opportunities to more than 60 families in the Palestinian camp.

Ibdaa’s mission is to provide an environment for the camp’s children and young people to develop their ability, creativity and leadership skills through social, cultural and educational activities that are not readily available in the camp. It strives to empower the children and instill in them confidence and strength to face their difficult future, while educating the international community on the Palestinian refugee issue.

The Ibdaa troupe performs dance pieces that tell the history, struggle and aspiration of Palestinian refugees by intertwining debkeh traditional Palestinian dance, and theatrical choreography. This traditional folk dance has existed for many years and is recognized by the holding of hands to reflect the Palestinians’ unity and solidarity.

The Askalan Palestinian Band took to the stage next singing folk songs. Their music featured keyboards, vocalists, background singers and an electric oud. A male and female singer took turns belting out traditional songs with uncanny passion. Although everything was in Arabic, and I was at a loss to know the story and meaning behind the song’s lyrics, it was a very moving performance.

Handicrafts
As part of the weeklong event, an artisanal exhibition highlights homemade crafts, such as silver jewelry created from olive leaves (a symbol of peace), mother of pearl pieces including a large replica of “Dome of the Rock”, glass blown products, ceramic items and floor tiles, olive oil soap, time-honored embroidered clothing and tapestries, and crafts made from olive tree wood. Most of the embroidery work, including abayas, scarves, accessories and bags, features traditional Palestinian embroidery, known as tatriz, which is produced through a woman’s collective.

The eclectic fusion of blue, green, brown and turquoise colored glass products caught my attention. I quickly purchased two beautiful and delicately-appearing matching goblets. The twin wine glasses make a stunning conversation piece and are heavy and well made. Though non-dishwasher safe because of the glass content, they will withstand steady use and future moves.

The collective at Ibdaa Cultural Center in West Bank provides an alternative income source to the families. It also strives to preserve the ancient cultural heritage that has been passed down through generations of Palestinian mothers and daughters. Women from West Bank and Gaza have made all of the products displayed.Image

As part of Adel Fair Trade initiative, Palestinians are striving to build an economy under occupation. Adel is a pioneer national marketing program supporting products and cooperatives of marginalized families in terms of fair trade and fair price principles for both producers and consumers with the goal of improving their economic situation.

Some of the Palestinian-made products available to sample and for sale included olive oil, olive paste, makdous (stuffed baby eggplants mixed with nuts), atayeb, a dried tomato and olive mixture using all non-chemical ingredients, which we purchased, sheep cheese, red chili sauce, sweet pumpkin jam, natural honey, grape molasses and various whole wheat and couscous products along with an array of dried spices, and an impressive and mouth-watering selection of sweets, such as harissa and kanafeh. All of the Palestinian recipes are passed through generations, authentic and grown and produced using local raw materials free of unsafe and unhealthy chemical ingredients and preservatives. Information passed out claims the product’s standards match international and national standards.

Emad Abu Zuluf, chairman of the Palestinian-Qatari Friendship Association explained to the press that apart from strengthening relations between Palestine and Qatar, the association has been instrumental in becoming a bridge that has facilitated cultural communication by sharing and promoting its culture.

The music was upbeat, the audience multinational, and the evening highly entertaining and educational. Seeking out other nationalities and learning about their cultures is one of the great rewards of being an expat in a foreign country. It is a journey of constant discovery.

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The Many Colors of Turkish Art & Culture

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Centuries old art forms and textiles. Traditional shadow puppetry and children’s games. Music, dance, Turkish coffee and ethnic food. It was a showcase of everything made in Turkey. And it was all displayed in grandeur at the inaugural Turkish Festival held at Katara the Cultural Village in Doha, Qatar this past April.

Turkey has an undisputable rich cultural heritage, particularly in music, dance, and various performing arts. Historical evidence points to the influences of several empires as the reason, in particular, the flamboyant Ottoman Empire’s legacy, but has European influences as well.

Turkish Art
Turkish art is a combination of various forms of Turkish culture. It broadly refers to paintings, architecture, literature and other fine art forms.

Silk painting represents the synthesis of Turkey’s eastern and western cultures. Inspired by Turkish motifs, silk painting embellishes wood, marble and traditional Turkish and Ottoman motifs on silk scarves by brush with trademark Turkish colors.

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Turkey is famous for its Iznik tiles, dating back some five centuries, the beautiful raw quartz found locally in Iznik. It takes about 40 days to make one tile, since they are all handmade. The process involves pounding the quartz into powder, then forming them into squares. The tiles are then heated, designed, contoured and, finally, colored. At first, blue and white were the prevailing colors in the pots and wall tiles in this category. During the 16th century, turquoise was introduced. The embossed red of the wall tiles in Istanbul’s Süleymaniye Mosque (1555) marks the peak of Ottoman tiles and ceramics, as red is very rare and difficult to colorize. Almost every Turkish mosque and palace prominently features tile works while many homes also showcase tile.

Paper marbling, an art of ornamentation, was an important branch of both art and business during the Ottoman reign, and remains popular today in Turkey. The ornamentation patterns result from specially prepared colored dyes floated on water and then carefully transferred onto paper or fabric. Methods include ink brushes and straws to fan the colors into patterns resembling smooth marble. Marbling was widely used in book covers and stationery.Image

Calligraphy, another visual art, utilizes a highly decorative and beautiful writing style. It was significant throughout the world and preceded typography and the printing press. Many exquisite examples were on display.

Eye dazzling jewelry and engraved handmade silver platters, taking two months from start to finish, were also showcased in the Turkish Grand Bazaar.

Similar to the Turkish culture that has become rich and influenced by several empires and their own set of practices, Turkish clothing also has a rich tradition of its own. Many interesting styles adorned a full wall.

Shadow puppetry was extensively highlighted along with an area designated for children to color puppets. Turkish children have grown up watching this unique type of puppetry, which according to display information indicates stories of Aladdin and other fairy tales. The puppets dance on sticks behind a wall of thin veil fabric. A screen and table is set up in the dark with enough light to cast shadows on the puppets. The audience can actually see the shadows, but cannot see the hand behind them.

Historically, the two lead characters of Turkey’s traditional adult shadow play puppetry are Karagoz, who symbolizes the illiterate but practical public, and Hacivat, a level-headed member of the educated class. The central theme of the plays is the contrasting interaction between the two directed toward an adult audience. Today, these humorous plays are more closely associated with Eid and are in a “toned down” form intended for children. It is unclear when the plays were first performed, but have been documented at least during the 14th to 15th centuries. What is known, however, is that the puppetry art form was being performed well before the advent of electricity.

Mehteran Band Music
We anxiously waited for the start of the musical portion of the festival that did not get underway until after 7 p.m. First up was the popular Mehteran. Just as they were getting settled onto the stage, the power tripped and all went dark. They began playing to a delighted crowd anyway.

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In Ottoman, mehteran means band. Ottoman military bands are thought to be the oldest variety of military marching band in the world. Modern day military marching bands got their start after being modeled by the mehteran bands sometime in the 16th century. Today, Mehteran band music is largely ceremonial and considered by most Turks as an example of heroism and a reminder of Turkey’s historical past.

The performance was very good, and the male band wore colorful traditional robes wrapped in colorful silks and high ribbed hats that were flared at the top. The group played interesting and unfamiliar instruments. The standard instruments used are the giant timpani, which is a large hemispherical brass or copper percussion instrument with a drumhead (the flat surface of a drum that has leather stretched over it); a small kettle drum, bass drum, cymbals, zurna, a reed-type wind instrument; a kind of trumpet and the cevgen, a type of stick bearing small concealed bells.

Turkish Dance and Music
Another important and inseparable part of the rich Turkish heritage is dance, which consists of several forms.

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The Folklore Dance Ensemble performed later in the evening, and unfortunately, we were unable to stay for it. (Photo is courtesy of the local newspaper.) Reportedly, this group performs in colorful authentic national dress based on their region in Turkey playing folk instruments with a goal to preserve folk culture in a pure form so generations may appreciate and become familiar with this tradition. A hallmark of Turkish dance performances is their variety and “immaculate choreography”. These dances feature a variety of tempos, such as very slow and then very fast.

Turkish music is divided into two major groups: classical and folk. Classical is actually the Ottoman music that is associated with the higher society that has developed through centuries. Military music is a form of classical music.

The Turkish World’s Music Ensemble concert was a third musical offering of the evening, which we also missed. These musicians played music from all seven districts of Turkey, and newspaper reviews reported that there were costume changes with every region and their moves and choreography showed almost no repetition.

Although it was disappointing that the two music ensembles didn’t start until very late in the evening, overall, the entire Turkish Festival was a wonderful time and the enthusiastic crowds in obvious agreement.

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Kings & Pawns: Board Games From India to Spain

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The life size chess figures really are life size. And they’re alive too!

The black and white human pieces stand at stoic attention and stare vacantly until the chess master calls a move, in which case, the appropriate chess piece walks to the respective square to make a strategic move in the popular board game.

Kings & Pawns: Board Games from India to Spain, a new exhibit now on display in Doha, Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art spotlights an interesting history lesson. Briefly, the exhibition explores the importance of chess, backgammon and other board games from an artistic and cultural perspective between the seventh and 20th centuries.

The display pieces – chess, dice, game boards – provide glimpses into the societies of those playing the games and creating the intricate game pieces as works of art.

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Carved chess pieces of ivory, coral and alabaster dating between 8th and 15th centuries adjoins silk and cotton fabric game boards of the 15th century to inlaid chess and backgammon boards of wood, ivory, bone and metal. Complementing these are Iranian illustrated books showing chess being played in the Persian court. Royalty played with carved and inlaid chess pieces while the common man used more modest objects made of glass or ceramic.

According to experts, there are many legends as to the beginnings of chess and backgammon, although the exact origins are unknown. It is believed that chess first began in India while backgammon was first played in Persia. Although the first written accounts of chess date from the 7th century, it almost certainly was invented earlier. Chess became a part of the courtly education of Persian nobility after being introduced from India. After the Islamic conquest of Persia, the Muslim world took up the game. From the Middle East, chess spread directly to Russia. By the early 9th century, the game reached Western Europe where it developed extensively. By the late 15th century, chess had survived a series of prohibitions and Christian church sanctions to almost take the shape of the modern game, including competitive chess tournaments, which have added to the game’s popularity.

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Chess has long been known as the Game of Kings and was popular in royal and aristocratic circles. It was not just a game for the elite however; the popularity of chess spread quickly through all levels of society.

Board Games
There are three broad categories of board games: race, war and siege games. Chess is a war game with pieces originally designed to represent the Indian army. The King rode into battle with his trusted political advisor by his side (today known as the Queen). They were protected by elite soldiers made up of the elephant corps (Bishops), the cavalry (Knights) and the charioteers (Rooks). In front of them walked the foot soldiers (Pawns).

Backgammon, believed to be even more popular than chess, is a race game in which players try to move all of their pieces to the end of the board, combining both luck and skill equally.

Two teams play the renowned race game, known as ‘pachisi’, each moving their pieces to the finish line as quickly as possible. The game originated in India and was a popular royal game in the 16th century.

The “game of wisdom” is a game still widely played by children across the world and is more commonly known today as Snakes and Ladders. The game originated in India and was first developed as a method of religious instruction.

Also on display as part of the MIA exhibition were various game boards, some made of silk and cotton dating to the 15th century, known as a chessboard carpet, while others consisted of wood box forms inlaid with ivory and bone. Backgammon boards, for example, feature a combination of interlocking triangles and hexagons, all geometric patterns that are a common feature of Islamic art.

It was an enlightening historical exploration where I learned about the interconnection of art, religion and social class of chess and other board games. And the human chess game in progress? The perfect “contemporary” link that cohesively wove it all together.

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Discovering the Unfamiliar in Qatar and Beyond

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.

Water Stations
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.Image

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.

Majlis Tents
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.Image

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.Image

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.

Wedding Tents
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.Image

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.

“Guard Shacks”Image
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.

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Laborer Accommodations
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.

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Arabic Language
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.

Because the official language is Arabic, all government correspondence and documents are in Arabic with NO English translation. Image

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.

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Transportation
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.Image

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.Image

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.

 

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Doha Equestrian Festival Highlights Trick Riding and Purebred Arabian Horse Contest

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The outdoor arena – full to capacity – thundered with applause in the late winter eve’s darkness with the arrival of the star attraction galloping into the arena on horseback.

The backdrop was HH (His Highness) the Emir’s 23rd International Equestrian Sword Festival, held at the Doha, Qatar Equestrian Federation grounds, which provided all the thrills and entertainment equestrian lovers yearn for as part of its opening ceremony. Trick riding, fire jugglers, the Qatar Police Band, a traditional arda (sword) dance, and an entertaining laser performance thrilled the crowd. The main attraction, however, was world-renowned equestrian trainer and movie stuntman Mario Luraschi.

Luraschi and his horse dazzled the spectators, young and old, with such tricks as his horse sitting on command, popping out from a trunk, rearing up on his front legs, and demonstrating graceful prancing techniques.

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The Frenchman demonstrated the special skills required of movie stunt horses as well as what their riders must perfect for trick riding during filmmaking. The spirit and energy of the beautiful horses were also well showcased.

Billed as an elegant acrobatic performance, Luraschi’s goal was to highlight the close relationship between horse and rider, including cooperation and trust. He succeeded magnificently. According to his bio, for the past 30 years Luraschi has trained horses to perform stunts in more than 400 films in the U.S. and Europe. He credits his interest within the horse world to his “passion for the American Natives and the huge American land”.

Six professional stunt entertainers from Germany (three men and three women) – Luraschi’s accompanying team – enthralled the crowd with their daring trick riding while the emcee engaged the audience into vocal voting and applause for the men vs. women.

The young fire jugglers also did not disappoint, twirling and juggling blazing flames on sticks.

The Qatar Police Band performed Qatar’s National Anthem followed by a contingency of Qatari men in national dress who entertained the crowd with Qatar’s traditional arda dance. I’ve seen these before and they are always very entertaining.

The evening festivities climaxed with a brief laser show and a final salute to movie stuntman Luraschi. Unfortunately, the evening ended much too quickly despite extending for almost two hours.

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Day Two of the festival featured a purebred Arabian horse judging contest. The one-year-old fillies were on display for the public prior to the judging. They were assessed on stature and carriage, prancing and galloping skills, and, of course, natural beauty. A trainer explained that the purpose of applying liberal amounts of oil to a horse’s eyebrow area and nose added context, when I commented on the noticeably obvious heavy oil coverage.

Three nine-card race meetings were scheduled for the remaining weekdays (one each for Purebred Arabians and Thoroughbreds) culminating with the prestigious HH The Emir’s Sword race. The winning horse owners will pocket a 1 to 1.5 million QR ($137,310 to $275,000) per race.

Although we could not attend any daytime horse races during the work week, we seized the opportunity to walk over to the track for a close-up look. The track is impressive with both dirt and turf while the size of the window laden, softly curved Islamic-styled architecture of the stadium grandstand is equally appealing.

The inaugural event in 1991 was held as a Pure Arabian Horse Show, but has grown to include Thoroughbreds as well. It is the largest and richest purse festival in the Middle East attracting some of the best horses and jockeys from abroad.

Although horse betting is haram (unlawful) in Islamic countries, owners and jockeys race for monetary purses while spectators are more than satisfied with the fast-paced action on the track.

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A Tradition of Hospitality Still Exists Today in the Arab Culture

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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; to threaten the openhandedness nomadic peoples must depend on to survive.

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 where Muslims will wash their hands and feet before entering the mosque to pray.Image

I’ve seen many water “stations” in various forms both in Bahrain and here in Qatar.

Because we live in a former Bedouin neighborhood, there are numerous stations – at least one per block – on area streets. So the other day, I decided to take a few photos of them.

I came across one that resembled old earthenware pottery, while the majority are “modern contraptions” mounted on a wall. Some are relatively primitive and in poor condition, while others more decorative and modern.

All of these are within a 10-block radius of our Doha compound. An interesting bit of culture. Enjoy!

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