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.