Sunday, December 30, 2007

Camel Racing in Qatar

Camels are, understandably, a big deal in this desert-defined region. They provide transportation, food, and entertainment in the form of racing. The QNHG (Qatar Natural History Group), which I have mentioned before, had a ramble to the camel race track near Sheehaniya in mid-December. There we were able to watch the Sudanese trainers as they exercised and trained the camels on the track.

Things I learned:
1. The young Sudanese boys who used to be used as jockeys have been replaced by mechanical boxes that are attached to the saddle. This was done in response to protests by human rights groups several years back, who objected to the way in which the young jockeys were obtained and retained.
2. Those young Sudanese boys have become the trainers.
3. The races start with pairs of camels: a mother, ridden by her trainer, and a young camel with the mechanical jockey. After a bit, the mother leaves the track and the races are completed by the young camels.
4. There are two concentric race tracks - the camels race on the inner track and the camel owners and spectators drive/race alongside on the outer track. The owners are controlling the mechanical jockey. The spectators are just having a good time.
5. Gambling is illegal in Qatar, so various interested individuals put up large purses as prize winnings - usually 4x4 SUV's or pick-up trucks.

This information explained why the parking lot of the race track looked like a car dealership with lots of unlicensed vehicles sitting about; why there were two tracks; and why it didn't matter if you couldn't see the far side of the track from the very small grandstand since most spectators would be in their cars racing with the camels.

It seems to be rather difficult to find out when the camels are racing, since the races aren't widely publicized, but I'm hoping to be able to attend at least one race before I leave in May - as long as someone else is driving!

Holidays in Qatar and Anna & Scott's Excellent Adventure in Doha

Sorry I haven't blogged lately. I had to wrap up the semester and then concentrate on Christmas, so I'll start this posting by going back a month to Thanksgiving to fill in some blanks.

I had Thanksgiving dinner with quite a few other VCUQ people and their families in Sandy & Ty Wilkins' back yard feasting on lots of traditional Thanksgiving dishes and other treats (note: Sandy is the chair of fashion design and Ty is the facility manager of the VCUQ building). It was dark by dinner time, so I'm not sure exactly what I did eat, but it was all yummy.

Because I am used to being super involved with Thanksgiving cooking, I volunteered to help River, my neighbor and VCUQ's registrar, bake 8 pies - mostly pumpkin, but also a couple of sweet potato and apple. Finding a rolling pin was a bit challenging, but the Carrefour (a French Wal-Mart near my villa) had them. Special guests for the evening were ten US Air Force service personnel. Interestingly, some were civilian contractors rather than service men. The US military in Qatar are very low profile around here. They don't wear uniforms off base and travel in small groups. One had graduated from Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh and was (no surprise) a Steelers' fan. Another was from Baltimore and also a Steelers' fan, who didn't change his allegiance to the Ravens when Modell brought his team to town. Overall, it was a fun evening, but not at all like the traditional Thanksgiving dinners that Anna and I have cooked and hosted over the years.

And now to Christmas...this was a really special time that I had been looking forward to for a long time since Anna and Scott were coming. Because I was so excited by the prospect of their arrival, I started preparations right after Thanksgiving. For a tree, I found a 6 foot tall Norfolk pine at the Plant Souk. Brian, VCUQ faculty and a fellow Pittsburgher, helped me get it home in his rag-top Land Rover. For ornaments, I bought some small glass balls at a holiday bazaar hosted by the College of the North Atlantic, a Canadian technical institute in Doha. The bazaar also provided me with wrapping paper and a small stocking for myself; Anna and Scott brought theirs with them. I found later that most of the stores also had sections devoted to Christmas ornaments and miscellany. Another friend, Kathleen Ferguson Huntington, who teaches foundation courses at VCUQ, gave me an entire packing box full of pine cones that her father, a retired jewelry designer, had sprayed gold, which I managed to hang from the rather sparce branches of the Norfolk pine. Overall, it kind of looked like a classy Charlie Brown tree. I also had purchased a small olive wood creche in Jordan at Eid break and later bought a couple of small camel ornaments and some great red, green, blue, and yellow plaid at the Fabric Souk for a tablecloth.

Anna and Scott arrived as scheduled on Christmas Eve via Paris and Frankfort, after a very frustrating 4 days of travel. They slept late on Christmas morning, then we opened presents and had a special breakfast - Anna made wonderful chocolate chip griddle cakes. About mid-afternoon, while the turkey was cooking, we went to the tailor I'd found who'd agreed to make a custom suit for Scott in the five days they were here. Scott, as you may or may not know is about 6'-6" and sometimes has a difficult time finding clothes that fit well. And this suit needed to be special because it's for their wedding in August.

Most of the expats I've met in Doha returned to family homes (USA, Canada, China, England, Scotland, Korea, Pakistan, Lebanon, India) or took extended trips over the holidays, but several remained here and joined Anna, Scott, and me for dinner - there were 7 for the main course and another 5 came later for dessert. Because I didn't cook a Thanksgiving dinner this year, I did a Thanksgiving menu for Christmas dinner. About the only things missing were the turkey shaped croutons in the soup (no soup this year and no turkey shaped cookie cutter) and celery in the stuffing - none to be found anywhere. I was able to acquire a 16+ lb Butterball, chicken bullion cubes without MSG (Anna's had trouble with MSG for years), Ocean Spray fresh cranberries for relish, and Libby's pumpkin for the pies, although I had to make my own pie crust from scratch for the first time in years, and evaporated milk wasn't to be found so I also made that, which was a challenge. Fortunately, River left the key to her villa, so I was able to borrow chairs and dishes (we all pretty much have identical everything), as well as spices.

The parts of Christmas I missed the most were the special church services, music, and dinner at Sixth Presbyterian. Things I didn't miss were winter weather, the rush to write and send Christmas cards, and buying and mailing presents - my sisters and I agreed not to exchange presents this year and Anna took some presents for my great nieces and great nephew back with her for mailing. Anna, Scott, and I agreed to minimize presents too because it cost them so much just to get here, although Anna gave me a wonderful pair of down slippers and Scott gave me a box of the best dark chocolate on earth. And my friend, Brenda, in Atlanta always sends presents, regardless of how far away I am - this year a wonderful Andy Warhol tote bag, a perfect present for a girl from Pittburgh. I'll get something in the mail to her soon!

The day after Christmas, Scott was feeling really sick as the cold he'd been fighting started winning, so he slept for a bit while Anna and I went for a power walk along the Corniche. By mid-day, Anna and I were also fighting colds and taking zinc as a preventative - among the three of us, we consumed enormous quantities of Kleenex during their visit. Scott revived later for a visit to the Souk Waqif in the afternoon, then we went to dinner at Villaggio, Doha's newest mall, modeled on Venice complete with a canal and gondola. We finished off the day with a quick trip to see Pearlman and made a few purchases.

Wednesday was our Desert Safari trip. Adel, our driver from Arabian Adventures, picked us up at 9:00 AM and drove us south toward the Inland Sea. Along the way we did some dune bashing. Google this for more detail, but it's basically like snow skiing but with a Land Cruiser and sand dunes - really fun and dangerous unless you have a very experienced driver. Then Adel made a detour to a Bedouin camp, where we were invited to tea and Anna and Scott got to take short camel rides. It was pretty interesting to sit inside a Bedouin tent - and the two hooded falcons in the corner were an extra treat. After that, we went to Arabian Adventures campsite for a late lunch (grilled chicken and lamb with typical side dishes - humous, tabouli, olive salad, etc - and flat bread) right next to the Inland Sea with Saudi Arabia on the opposite shore. After lunch, Scott tried some sand surfing with a snow board and we all basked in the warm sun for a bit. Overall, it was a fun, relaxing day, although Adel had a cold that was as bad as Scott's so all four of us were sniffling and blowing the entire trip.

That evening, after Scott had a fitting for his suit, we went to see Riyaz, (affectionately known as Rugman by people at VCUQ), so Anna and Scott could pick out their Christmas present from me. Riyaz is simply terrific. He doesn't just sell rugs. He educates all of his customers about his rugs. Most are 100% wool tribal rugs from Afganistan; the exceptions are the silk rugs from Kashmir that are woven by his father. By the end of the evening, Anna and Scott narrowed their selection down to the two they liked the best and took both to see them in the morning light and make their final decision. We dined that evening at Neo - really good sushi.

Thursday, we slept a bit late determined to beat our colds, then rallied to do the full 10K circuit along the Corniche again. After lunch at the Diet Shop, we returned to Riyaz's so he could pack up the rug they'd chosen (a beautiful gold and red-orange Kazak). Then we stopped at the reportedly best shawarma place in Doha for a treat, got Scott's new suit - also really beautiful, Anna made a final decision on new sunglasses, and we went to the Landmark Mall to see the Marks & Spencer, a disappointment compared to their London store. We finished the day at the Souk Waqif for some more shopping and dinner at an Indian restaurant.

Friday, yesterday, was their last day in Doha. Scott kindly agreed to some mother-daughter shopping time, so Anna and I headed to City Center Mall, which is huge. After a few purchases and a quick stop at Salam to see their expensive designer collections, we returned to the villa, picked up Scott, and went to the pool for some sun - it was the warmest day we had during their whole visit - and exercise. While Anna and Scott packed, I went to the Turkish Star for "take away" mixed grill, fettoush, and a mazza platter. Their flight left about midnight, so I dropped them at the airport about 10:00 - sob.

Anna and I have already IM'd today - they've arrived safely in Paris where they will spend New Year's Eve. I'm not sure yet if I'll do much for New Year's Eve or not, but I do have two bottles of champagne. Maybe someone will be interested in ringing in the New Year with me - I'll call a few friends tomorrow and see! Happy New Year to you all!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Qatar Desert Forts

Several weekends back (Friday, 26 October to be exact), several friends and I joined the Qatar Natural History Group for a tour of Qatar's desert forts that are north and west of Doha along the coast line. We started with Qalat (Fort) Zubara, then drove to three others - most were in ruins - and ended the day at Al Jumail, where we could see ruins of an old town and a very picturesque mosque. A person who organized the tour provided a colorful, written narrative of each site and included details of a pirate who used to operate in the area. It was fun going off-road (4-wheel drive was required for the trip) and seeing what the area north of Doha looks like - vast stretches of flat desert. And I'm glad we were part of the QNHG caravan - we'd have never found those sites without being guided there.

Events with food, food, and more food

VCUQ seems to constantly be hosting an art opening or special event of some kind, which nearly always includes a wonderful spread of Middle Eastern food. The opening of another school term provided the first round of food-embellished events in late August. Then an art opening that featured stories collected by Graphic Design students of old, present, and future Qatar happened about the second week of school...the poster for it will eventually provide some artwork for my rather bare walls. Then there were several special events for Ramadan (including a carpeted "majlis" that was constructed inside of VCUQ's atrium space to provide a setting for a dinner) and another art opening (a terrific photography and video exhibition of work by artists who live and work in the gulf region).

The most recent event was the Hamid Bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art, which brought together many well regarded authorities on Islamic art from all over the world and lasted for two and a half days...with multiple dinners and lunches all free for VCUQ faculty and staff. To wrap it up, our deans hosted a party at their villas for the Symposium visitors one night then invited faculty and staff the next evening (this was last Wednesday, 7 November) to a lovely dinner. The henna artists were a fun addition to that party...check out my first henna tatoo. The good news is that I've only put on about 2 lbs (1 kilo) - but plan to take that off this week with salads for lunch and exercise.

Finding liquor in Qatar

When I first arrived in Qatar, Nancy, a librarian at VCU, gave me a bottle of wine - and that's when I remembered that alcohol is illegal here - rather, I should say, very tightly controlled! Because this is an Islamic state and because alcohol is not consumed by most Muslims, buying alcohol in Qatar can be a bit challenging, which is why Nancy gave me the perfect welcome gift and suggested that I pass along the good Karma to another someday.

To be obliging to visitors (i.e., not discourage the lucrative tourist industry), Qatar allows hotels to serve alcohol in their bars and restaurants, which are some of the more expensive places in Doha to eat. That option, however, doesn't fill the need for those of us who occasionally like to have a glass of wine or beer in our own homes. The alternative, established for resident expats like myself, is called The Syndicate, a state-run (I think) liquor store, at which expatriots are allowed to purchase a membership that in turn entitles them to purchase imported wines and beer at rather inflated, but still affordable, prices. It is against the law to sell liquor to a Qatari, so The Syndicate is very tightly controlled.

Because this sounds a little bit like the archaic liquor control system in Pennsylvania, I was probably less flummoxed by this system than most. Right after I arrived, several people, including Nancy, mentioned to me that Ramadan was starting soon and The Syndicate would be closed for that entire month. Nancy, besides giving me a house-warming bottle of wine, also offered to buy some wine for me when she went to The Syndicate to stock up for Ramadan. After several reminders, I took her up on the offer and got several bottles of wine. Then Kip, who teaches basic design at VCU and who also has a membership at The Syndicate, made the same offer. He got me several bottles and a case of Heineken.

The end of the tale is that, after three months, I am still working on the case of beer and have several bottles of wine that others brought to me when I hosted them at dinner parties. Guess I'm not in danger of being classified as an alcoholic anytime soon. And a gentle reminder to any who travel this way: do not buy alcohol on your way to Qatar in the duty-free shops - it will be confiscated by customs, just like pork.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Eid Trip to Jordan (12-19 Oct)

Eid is the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. It seems to vary in length depending on the country and how long they want to close government offices. VCUQ gives students and faculty an entire week off, which they call fall break. Almost as soon as I arrived in Doha, people started asking me where I was going for Eid - it's a popular time to travel here!

So, not wanting to miss an opportunity to travel, I joined a tour group to Jordan that was organized with the help of a travel agent by the Qatar Natural History Group, which is made up of lots of British, Canadian, and American expatriots - "expats" for short. For a day-by-day account of my week in Jordan, illustrated with a few select photos that extend below this Eid posting into the Ramadan posting, read on....

Day 1: at 1:00 AM on Thursday, 12 October we congregated at the Doha airport for our Royal Jordanian flight to Amman, Jordan. Our group of 29 departed at 3:40 AM. Lots of flights from Doha seem to leave in the middle of the night for some reason or another. And did you know that Royal Jordanian serves meals on their flights - even those that only last about 3 hours? Anyway we arrived in Amman about 6:30 AM and were met by a bus and our tour guide, Osama. They took us to downtown Amman via STARBUCKS, which was a welcome sight given our sleep deprived state. We were all impressed immediately with the weather - at least 10 degrees (farenheit) cooler than Doha and less humid. Osama proved to be only an OK tour guide, who loved to laugh - for a long time - at his own jokes. The museum at the Citadel was closed - certainly not Osama's fault, so we walked around a bit and wasted time until we could check into our hotel. We viewed the ancient Roman theatre in the middle of the city, wandered through some shopping streets that were pretty quiet because it was Friday, the Muslim holy day, saw the main mosque, and exchanged money for Jordanian dinars. About noon we checked into our hotel, the Belle Vue, located at Circle 2 in an older part of Amman, then had a late lunch, after which most of us crashed.

Factoid: One of the names the early Romans gave Amman was Philadelphia - I don't think, however, that there was a Pittsburgh was on the other side of the country!

Day 2: Our new tour guide, Nasser, who stayed with us for the next 5 days and whom everyone really liked, met us the next morning at the hotel for excursions to Umm Qays and Jerash, Roman ruins in northern Jordan. The weather was spectacular and from Umm Qays we were able to see the Golan Heights - a very impressive view that emphasized what a special, peaceful country Jordan is in the middle of a very turbulent region. Nasser grew up in the city of Jerash and had wonderful detailed knowledge of the site that is in surprisingly good condition given its age, earth quakes, wars, etc. The bag piper at the theatre was especially memorable. That evening we returned to Amman. My friend, River, the registrar at VCUQ, and her son, Joachin, joined me for a Mexican dinner at the Intercontinental Hotel - they had PORK ribs on their menu, a delicacy for travelers from Qatar, where it's illegal to bring PORK into the country!

Day 3: We again arose early in the morning to travel to the Desert Umayyad Castles (Qasrs) to the east of Amman. It was during one of Narrer's talks about these 8th century castles and forts that he said: "They shared the blood, but sharing the land was harder," a quote that echoed in my mind as I walked through these beautiful examples of early Islamic art and architecture. Our first stop was Qasr Al-Kharana, an archtypal desert fortress. The second site was the bath of Qasr Amra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with amazing frescoes and mosaics that are especially unique because of their very un-Islamic depictions of people and animals. After that we had lunch then proceeded to the black basalt fort at Azrak, a Roman fort that was later the headquarters of Lawrence of Arabia during the Arab Revolt in the early 20th cenury. For a change of pace we then went to the Azrak Wetlands, habitat for many birds and water buffalo. The wetlands are unfortunately disappearing as the demand for water grows in Jordan's cities.

Another factoid: Jordanian olive oil is considered some of the best in the world and is imported to both Spain and Italy, other major producers of olive oil. Apparently some people in the Middle East drink it, believing it will help them live longer.

Day 4: We checked out of our hotel and headed south to Mount Nebo, the place where Moses was buried. There we saw the Moses Memorial Church, which protects a number of mosaics from a much earlier church that was built on the same site, and we had an incredible view that stretched across the Jordan River Valley, past the Dead Sea to Jerusalem. From there we continued south to Madaba, which is known as the "city of mosaics." There we went to the contemporary Greek Orthodox church of St. George to see a mosaic 6th century Byzantine map of the Holy Land. Madaba is also the home of a mosaic school that operates under the Ministry of Tourism and trains artisans in the making, restoring, and repairing of mosaics. Unfortunately I didn't feel I could afford to purchase a mosaic from one of the shops we went to, but I now have a much better understanding of how they are made. That afternoon we continued south through the Wadi Mujib - Jordan's Grand Canyon - and stopped at Karak Castle. That evening we checked into the Taybet Zaman, a wonderful hotel decorated with Bedouin textiles, near Petra.

Day 5: Petra is wonderful. It is an amazing series of buildings, located at Wadi Musa, that were carved out of solid rose-red rock by the Nabataeans, an Arab civilization that lived there more than 2000 years ago. It was eventually claimed as a part of the Roman Empire, but was forgotten by the West by the beginning of the 14th Century and was only rediscovered in 1812 by a Swiss traveler who was looking for the ancient city of Petra. We rode horses as close as we could and then proceeded on foot to the Siq, the narrow slot in the rock that opens up to the magnificent Treasury Building. Local Bedouins operate the horse, donkey, and camel concessions - the camel ride I took with River and Joachin was outstanding.

Recommended reading: Married to a Bedouin (2006) by Marguerite van Geldermalsen is set in Petra, where she met and married Mohammed Abdallah, a Bedouin. They set up housekeeping in one of Petra's caves and had three children. Marguerite spoke at VCUQ in September. I unfortunately missed her lecture and book signing, but her son, Raamie, was at Petra selling autographed copies of the book, so I bought it there and thoroughly enjoyed reading her account of life in Petra.

Day 6: We sadly left Petra (a place I would happily return to if ever given the opportunity) the next morning and went to Wadi Rum for a bedouin tour of the desert in that area via pickup trucks outfitted for tourists. There we saw the Seven Pillars of Wisdom (a rock formation of 7 columns that I think provided the name for T.E. Lawrence's book), petroglyphs, and sand dunes. After that we headed back to Amman and the Belle Vue Hotel.

Day 7: We packed our bags for the flight home, but made a planned stop at the Dead Sea Spa for a swim and mud baths! That was fun - nearly everyone got into it - especially since Osama, who had rejoined us that morning, promised we'd loose years if we did!

Parting comments: the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is wonderful. If you ever get a chance to go there, don't miss it. It definitely rivals Greece for wonderful ancient architecture and has a similar landscape, although the red sand is unique to Jordan. And by all means, go to Petra at least once in your life-time.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


As a Christian westerner I knew very little about Ramadan when it began on September 12th. I am far from an expert on Ramadan, but will share my experiences here.

First a basic, abbreviated description of Ramadan: it lasts for one lunar month (28 days), so its occurance varies yearly on the calendar. For Ramadan, Muslims fast during daylight hours - they go the entire day without any food or drink, not even water. After the evening prayer that coincides with sundown they break their fast with a meal that is called Iftar. Traditionally, the first foods they will eat are dates and water.

Although this description is simple, it has a huge impact on daily life in Islamic countries. For example, our classes at VCUQ were rescheduled by cutting 20 minutes off each class period and advancing all of the classes through the day to a new start time; one result was that my senior studio that usually ends at 6:00 PM ended instead at 4:40 PM. This was done so the students would be able to get home to break fast with their families, but also because they are very tired by the end of the day.

Most restaurants are closed during Ramadan daylight hours; the only exceptions in Doha that I was aware of (although I'm sure there were many others) were hotel restaurants and the cafeteria at Education City in the LAS building. And many businesses - even exercise classes - have modified hours. For example, the shops at Villagio, the shopping center closest to me, were open for a few hours in the morning, then closed and re-opened after sundown until past midnight. The Doha syndicate, where liquor is purchased, was closed the entire month. And just like Christmas in the USA, there are special decorations in most stores. Common greetings are Ramadan Kareem or Ramadan Mubarak (which translate as "Ramadan Blessings").

In orientation sessions at the beginning of the semester, new faculty were cautioned not to eat or drink in front of students during the day. As a lifetime Weight Watcher, who is seldom without a bottle of water, I had to really be careful about this - and in fact forgot the first day of Ramadan, but was kindly reminded by another faculty member to ditch my water bottle. Driving in Doha is often a bit scary, but during Ramadan it can be especially harrowing, so we were cautioned to stay off the roads just before sundown because many hungry Muslims would be headed to their family homes for Iftar. I actually found that advice to be untrue, but I did observe that traffic jams were more frequent during Ramadan, and, as soon as the evening call to prayer was heard, the streets were empty.

Many Qatari families gather for Iftar every night - children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles. For some, this is a time for lavish entertaining and parties that go into the wee hours of morning...and this will happen night after night. My students in families like that were wiped out during classes. Some fell asleep during class, few worked outside of class (as is expected in a design curriculum), and absences and excuses were rampant. And their performance dropped significantly, particularly during the last 10 days of Ramadan when additional prayers are to be said throughout the night.

Other families will have a large meal with their extended family for Iftar and another smaller meal in their own home just before they go to sleep around midnight. Then they will try to wake up a bit before daybreak for a light snack. My students, whose families approached Ramadan in this more moderate manner, tended to be more alert in class and got their work done. My office mate, Maryam, who graduated in the program several years ago and is now the department assistant, told me that she becomes so used not to eating during the day that she goes through a period after Ramadan when she has to become accustomed to having food during the day again.

This is also a time for special charity drives. Someone told me that good deeds performed during Ramadan are supposed to count double, but I don't know if that is true or not. It is also a time for travel. One of my students made a pilgrimage to Mecca with her father and brought back dates from Medina, and others traveled to see family (thus some of the absences in my classes). Several of my students who had not worn abayas before, started wearing them during Ramadan, and the English radio station I listen to devoted a considerable amount of time to special discussions about Ramadan and fasting. One discussion about whether you could brush your teeth or not during Ramadan (you cannot) stuck in my mind because of the serious tone of the speaker.

Some people are excused from fasting - e.g., pregnant women and those having their period, but they have to make it up later. I heard one student who was very concerned about this because she was caught in an uncomfortable situation: she was allowed to eat, but she couldn't do it because she didn't want anyone to know she was having her period. One woman told me that she preferred to fast while she was pregnant, because she didn't want to go through it alone later...I can only imagine what fasting Muslims in non-Islamic countries must go though to observe Ramadan - it's got to be tough for them.