Let Me Tell You About My New Favorite Things ...

Disclaimer:  I am not getting paid to promote views, items or brands on this website. 

I sincerely hope I won't offend my faithful readership of three by expressing my personal views on small findings that bring me pleasure, discontent or misgivings, whether in Canada, the ME, or anywhere else. 

Unfortunately, I realize my new favorite things will bely my age and the blasé attitude to high-end items that has crept over me since arriving in the ME over six years ago.

It's sadly true that in a country where it's raining designer brands, I don't quite get as flushed and excited as I used to upon seeing storefront signs displaying Versaci, Ralph Lauren, Baby Dior (I kid you not), Fengali, BVLGARI, Prada (and the list goes on ...) at the local mall.  

Hard to believe one could become desensitized to the allure of the bling?  Well, let's stop and consider the local lady I met whose baby chomped on a diamond encrusted pacifier and was potty trained on a Swarovski diamond-studded potty.  If the idea of regurgitating on a Dior dummy doesn't seem entirely ludicrous, then surely the idea of pooping on diamonds is enough to restore sanity?  

Manalo Blahniks start to seem blah, and Christian Louboutins seem old hat when you witness a literal bevy of red soles treading in unison across the shop floor, the only thing visible within a congregation of loosely flowing abayas, hijabs and niqabs.

My former boss (who was a well-to-do local) was admiring my 200 QAR (about 55$ CA) Aldo tote bag last year.  She asked me if it was a "Longchamps" (I actually had to Google that ... I'm really not that brand savvy and bag mad).  Reality check: if those in the know can't tell the difference, is it really worth shelling out extra bucks on something that's going to get thrown on the car floor, chewed on by the cat, tripped on by Kiddo and stuffed 'til overflowing with receipts, tissues, perfumes, brushes, breath mints, crayons and snack bars?

I'm not entirely jaded.  I still have an occasional shopping spree left in me.

Case in point, I happened upon a sale last week at A.B.S. by Allen Schwartz.  I walked away with 12 items of clothing priced to sell at 10% of their original sales price.  Of course I was excited about my loot, but not quite in the same way I might have been a decade ago.  I got home and simply swapped one closet item for each new item of clothing I hung up (that's the O.C.D. in me ... allows me to get rid of the lovely size '0' skirt I will never, ever, ever, ever fit into again, donate it or bin it, and keep my closet manageable). 

No laying my bounty on the bed, no fashion show for Smilin' Vic and Kiddo.  Just extreme satisfaction at having found some really decent, stylish and properly fitting designer clothing at a near-bargain basement price.

And yet, every once in a while, I do manage to rediscover the "rush" of a really great find.  I happen upon a product or an item that I just know will be life-altering.  I've included a few of these most recent finds below for your viewing entertainment.  Warning, these images may prove disturbing to some.  In fact, please pass me a tissue, the pictures are a harsh reminder that forty has come and gone.

 Disney Gummy Vitamins.  What GENIUS thought these up?  I always thought Flinstones vitamins were the bees knees, but you will have to keep the jar hidden to keep the kids out (maximum 2 per day).

Disney Gummy Vitamins.  What GENIUS thought these up?  I always thought Flinstones vitamins were the bees knees, but you will have to keep the jar hidden to keep the kids out (maximum 2 per day).

 Wedge Crocs Sandals.  I SWORE I would die before EVER wearing a pair of Crocs.  But these little sandals are just perfect for our upcoming 2-week camping trip during which Smilin' Vic, aka The Packing Nazi, has declared we must limit ourselves to a pair of sneakers, flip flops and ONE pair of shoes each.  Seriously?

Wedge Crocs Sandals.  I SWORE I would die before EVER wearing a pair of Crocs.  But these little sandals are just perfect for our upcoming 2-week camping trip during which Smilin' Vic, aka The Packing Nazi, has declared we must limit ourselves to a pair of sneakers, flip flops and ONE pair of shoes each.  Seriously?

 Moulinex handmixer.  I only discovered the joy of a handmixer last year ... I don't know how I ever survived a day in the kitchen before then.

Moulinex handmixer.  I only discovered the joy of a handmixer last year ... I don't know how I ever survived a day in the kitchen before then.

Frequent Questions About the ME ... Part II

Here are a few more questions that I occasionally get when people find out I live in the ME.   

1.  What's the weather like?  (Or ... Is it really that hot?  Are the desert nights cold?  Do you get a lot of dust storms?  Does it ever rain?  etc.)

ANSWER:  Generally, Qatar is hot.  The heat varies, but the weather never strays much from hot.  The months of October to May are actually quite pleasant, ranging from low 20's to low 30's.  Humidity is not so high during those months, and we frequently sit outdoors in the evenings to enjoy a BBQ dinner, a coffee, glass of wine, etc.  October, November, March, April and May usually make for good beach weather.

December and January nights can dip to the low teens, and our first year in Qatar it was actually 4 C on New Year's Eve.  Since we have nothing but small space heaters to warm up our living spaces, and since most houses are made from cinderblock, warm sweaters and blankets are in order on colder nights.  A few sporadic hours of rain and occasional thunder showers are not uncommon in these months, but rarely have I seen it rain for a full day or even for more than a few hours at a time.  It can happen though, and our first year in Qatar we experienced about three weeks straight of rain (during the 2006 Asian Games), but this was a truly exceptional occurrence.  The rain is usually light, and makes for a slippery mess as it mixes with dust on the ground to create a kind of sand grease that coats cars and windows and lawn furniture.

The months of June to September are not so pleasant in terms of weather.  July, August and sometimes September can quite reasonably be likened to hell, with temperatures sometimes soaring up to 50 C coupled with extreme humidity.  You do not want to be caught outdoors for any length of time without water and sunblock.  Even the swimming pools become too hot to swim in, despite the best efforts of chillers.  And on the off-chance the pool is cool enough to bathe in, you will start to steam immediately upon stepping out.  

I once went for a run at Aspire Park on a cool September morning at 9:00 a.m.  By the time I was 1.1 km into my run, I realized I had no water left, the sun was beating down mercilessly, and I still had 1.1 km left to get to my car no matter which direction I headed.  By the time I made it back to the parking lot, I was seeing spots, having visions of myself collapsing right there of severe sunstroke, dehydrated in the midst of the piped-in bird music and manicured lawns.  I was salivating like a madwoman at the sight of the manmade lake glistening off in the distance, with delusions of a sprinkler magically switching on, if only for an instant.  The experience terrified me; it made me acutely aware of the fact that it is possible to collapse from heat and dehydration just a few hundred meters away from a source of water.  

Fog rolls in during the fall months.  It can make driving quite treacherous, particularly if you are heading out of the city.

Dust storms are frequent and quite unpleasant, but it is rare that I have seen an actual sandstorm.  We tend to get days where the sand particles just seem to hang suspended in the air.  If it is windy, the particles can sting your eyes, and if you've mistakenly left a window open while you've been out, you are likely to come back home to little sand mounds scattered throughout the house.

There is a lot of beige.  The dust particles create a haze of beige that blocks out blue skies and clouds.  There are no puffy, fluffy, low-hanging white clouds here; rare is the day that you will catch ferocious, thunderous, black clouds coursing their way across the skies.  No, most days it is just beige, though we do get some amazing flaming red sunsets on occasion.

All in all, the weather can take some getting used to, but I have to admit I don't find it as daunting as I did a few years back.  It doesn't even faze me when the weatherman on the radio declares that "It's going to be a balmy 28C today in Doha."  In Canada, that statement would read "Get the sunscreen and water spray bottles out, head for the beach, and stay hydrated, it's going to be a sweltering 28C out today."

2.  Aren't you concerned about civil unrest?  

ANSWER:  Is it in the back of my mind?  Yes.  Am I overly preoccupied?  No.  Qatar is by all standards a very safe and stable country that happens to be situated in a volatile part of the world.  While it would be silly not to be concerned, I truly believe the same can be said no matter where we might happen to be living at any given time.  

In August 2008, after a leisurely and peaceful 2-week vacation on the Island of Phuket, our taxi was caught in a protest on the way to the airport, resulting in us having to walk the final kilometer with our 3-year-old daughter and 4 pieces of luggage in tow through the throngs of protesters who blocked the roads leading to Phuket International Airport and eventually the tarmac itself, resulting in 118 flight cancellations.  Military and airport personnel helped hoist us over the airport gates and we were among the lucky few to board the last plane to fly out of there for the next four days. (click on the link below this post to read more about the airport demonstrations.) My point?  You just never know when chaos will strike.  North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, there is no telling what awaits you. 

Natural disasters, violent protests, demented and crazed individuals out to cause maximum damage ... they're everywhere.  It's no great help losing sleep over "what if's".

3. Is it hard for a Western woman to get used to such a male-dominated society?

ANSWER:  This is really a tough one to answer.  There's no simple yes or no answer for me.  In many ways, once you've gotten into your groove, life for a Western woman here is really not that different than in Canada or elsewhere.  But there are definitely differences.  Some of these are good; for example special lines for women in banks and other public establishments, the ability for me to quite openly call out any male who shows harassing or inappropriate behavior that could be deemed an insult to my honor; the tendency to be given preferential treatment at the airport if you are traveling with a young child.

But it's important to always remember where you are.  I do not offer to shake any man's hand unless he offers to shake mine first.  Most men are not offended, but some could be; when I first arrived here I was most startled when I met a male colleague who I'd spoken to and corresponded with for months but never actually seen face to face.  He had the annoying habit of always calling me "mate" over the phone, in a very thick British accent.  I felt this was a bit familiar, but he was a nice enough guy, so I let it slide.  When I finally met him, I reached out to shake his hand, and he politely refused, telling me his religion did not allow him to touch women he was not related to.  I was truly stunned; it seemed a departure from his very chatty and congenial nature.  But I took note, and now discretely tap my heart with my right hand when introductions are made.

Older men may be particularly offended by a female's overt presence, and I have seen one become absolutely irate upon seeing a female Western customer sitting on her own, close to a young family in the male waiting area.  While most establishments have separate female and male waiting areas, it is common practice for families to sometimes sit together in the male waiting area.  But I would advise against sitting there as a woman alone.  It's just not worth the potential confrontation and humiliation.

Some things are hard to wrap your head around as a Western woman, such as not being able to get a job without your husband's signed permission, not being able to set up initial accounts without your husband's help (e.g. phone, electricity, etc.).  Knowing that my husband gets a "ping" on his phone every time my daughter and I exit or enter the country (he gets this as he is our sponsor).  

But in general, life is no different here for me than it was in Canada.  I just have to think a little more.  Think about my actions, think about my surroundings.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

There are many more questions ... fodder for a future post.

No Reason for Me to be Bored in the ME ...

One thing is sure about living in Doha; there is no reason for anyone to be bored.  Granted, you may have to work a little to find out what is happening on any given night, but trust me there is ALWAYS something going on.

Tonight was a great example.  Doha National Theatre was showing the complete works of William Shakespeare (in 97 minutes).  Senter Stage Musicals was staging Oklahoma.  This afternoon we'd spent at the American School of Doha Friendship Festival, a huge annual fair complete with bake sales, dunking tanks, bean bag tosses, bouncy castles and raffles.  This weekend is also offering up the 10th Doha Jewelry and Watches Exposition.

The winter months in Doha are filled with things to do.  From tennis opens featuring top-seated international players (read Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, etc.), to power boat races, to productions such as Romeo and Juliet by renowned companies such as Shakespeare's Globe Theater out of London, to the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, there is no reason to lament the lack of entertainment.  

F1 MotoGP, Annual Dunestock, Placido Domingo, Spain vs. Uruguay, The Tour of Qatar, Kevin Spacey in Shakespeare's Richard III, and the list goes on.  All literally on our doorstep.  Scouts campouts where volunteers from the local U.S. Military Base come to volunteer, children's triathlons, 10 km races and a host of other social and sports activities.  

Last summer, we crossed the street and walked 1 km to attend Cirque du Soleil - Saltimbanco (2nd row seats!).  Marine exhibitions at the Souq, unparalleled fireworks displays at every possible occasion (most recently for National Sports Day), and any other number of other activities to be enjoyed by young and old alike.

Last fall, we went to see the The Russian Ballet at the Qatar National Exhibition Center (the building is something to behold in and of itself).  Once again, we managed to be seated three rows from the stage.  There was a mixup with our tickets though, and it appeared another couple had been assigned two of our four seats.  Smilin' Vic, ever the fixer, called over a bearded "usher" who was standing near the stage.  He politely but firmly told the "usher" that this was, at the very least, unacceptable, and to get the situation sorted out pronto.

The "usher" offered us  seats in the first two rows, seats reserved for diplomats.  Smilin' Vic would have nothing of it.  He told the "usher" to sort it out somehow, but we wanted the seats that we'd selected.  The "usher" sorted out his request, then let us know in a not-so-subtle tone that we must forgive his hesitation as this is not normally a part of his duties as the Chargé d'Affaires of the Russian Embassy!!!!  Only in Doha!

The only disincentive to attending these events is the congestion and traffic on the way there and back.  As I've said before, I'm not the best when it comes to braving night-time traffic in Doha, and I often end up quite frazzled on the way to and back from these happenings.  But the events themselves always end up making up for the negative driving experience.

While day-to-day life may sometimes seem somewhat humdrum, and the sand and the beige may become hypnotizing in their constance, while the lack of truly defined seasons may begin to wear thin, and where the lack of mountains, valleys, rivers and forests may stir wistful angst in my heart on occasion, there is truly no reason whatsoever for me to ever be bored in the ME.  

Weddings in the ME

One of the most bizarrely enchanting experiences I've had here in Qatar is attending a female Qatari wedding party.

The invite consisted of a lovely Qatari female employee asking me if I'd ever attended a Qatari wedding.  I hadn't.  She said "ok, tonight I will send my driver and he will pick you and your daughter to come with us so you can see."  I was caught off guard.  While I do socialize with a number of Qatari women, it is usually work related.

I asked whose wedding I was going to.  

She stopped for a minute, and I could see her eyes crinkling under her Niqab as she struggled to find a way to explain the relationship to me in English.

"It is the wedding of the daughter of the sister of the sister-in-law of my husband's cousin."  

??????

Me:  "Are you sure it's ok?  They don't even know me."

She:  "Of course.  She will be happy.  Bring your daughter.  Come, come.  I will send my driver."

Me:  "Uhmmm, ok.  Shukran.  That would be lovely.  What time should I be ready?"

She:  "He will pick you up at eight o'clock."

!!!!!!  (We are usually in bed by 7:30 p.m.!)

Me:  "Ok, but I'll take my car, just in case kiddo gets too tired."

I spent the rest of the afternoon at work finding out what kind of gift I should bring (none), what kind of clothes I should wear (formal), and what time I could expect to be there 'til (late, very, very late).

Went home, showered, did my hair, and chose a pair of black pants and a sequined top that I thought was appropriately conservative enough so as to show cultural sensitivity and defer the spotlight to the bride,  yet classy and dressy enough for a wedding.  My daughter was very excited to be going to a fancy wedding.  A first for her in Qatar.  Oh, and any excuse to dress up like a princess!

At some point in the evening, a driver showed up at our door and dropped of a gold-gilded wedding invitation, beautifully etched in Arabic and English, truly a piece of art.  Its content much resembled that of a Western wedding invitation, but its design was exceedingly elaborate.  Apparently it would be needed to enter the reception hall.

Oh, and did I mention that it specifically mentioned "no children or nannies" at the bottom?  So I called my friend.  "It says here that no children should attend; I think it's best if I leave my daughter (who was five at the time) at home?"

She was adamant in her protest.  "La, la (No, no), she must come."

So I kissed Smilin' Vic goodnight around 8:00 p.m. and headed off with kiddo in tow.  The simple fact of me driving after dark in this city is worthy of mention.  It's just something we don't do in this traffic-mad town.

I made my way to the venue, and called my friend to see if she was already inside.  This wedding was not being held in a hotel as is often the case.  It was being held at a local wedding hall.  There was nowhere in the building to 'hang' and I didn't feel comfortable going in on my own.

My friend hadn't yet left the house.  So I parked outside the hall for 45 minutes, watching the curious and constant ebb and flow of diners entering and exiting the Ponderosa down the street.  Ponderosa is a thriving business here, as are most North American chain restaurants (but I digress ... subject of another post).

Anyhow, my friend finally showed up, and we made our way into the hall.  We were greeted in the lobby by a group of female security guards.  They asked to see my invitation and my bag, and promptly confiscated my Motorola mobile phone (my pre-iphone days!), slipped it into a numbered envelope and handed me a matching tag so I could collect it at the end of the evening.

I must have looked confused; they explained that no picture-taking devices are allowed inside the hall.

We proceeded into the lobby, and I saw a few ladies milling about, abaya-free and dressed in elaborate Victorian-like dresses, the kind that cinch at the waist and define but barely confine surprisingly voluptuous and heaving bosoms.  I realized quickly that I was sorely underdressed.  My daughter stared unabashedly at the opulence and splendor that greeted us.  Plenty of other little girls ran about in equally ostentatious mini ball gowns.

My friend told me to wait a moment, she would be right back.  She headed for the restroom.

Now bear in mind that I work with this woman; until this point, I had never seen her without her abaya or Niqab.  Occasionally, I will glimpse the bottom half of her face when the girls share breakfast and she lifts the bottom half of her veil to scoop food up.  Needless to say I had no idea who she was when she emerged three minutes later ensconced in a red velvet bead-encrusted dress, neck and arms draped in gold, burlesque makeup, and hair done up in an Arabic bejeweled take on the bouffant.  Until she spoke directly to me, I hadn't the slightest clue who this smiling and very confident young lady might be.  She seemed very pleased at the surprise that obviously registered in my eyes.

She grabbed my arm, and the three of us headed into the wedding hall, stopping along the way only to catch a glimpse of the professional photo studio that had been set up to capture the excess and extravaganza.  A lady lounged seductively on the velvet settee as a female photographer took a series of snapshots while other wedding-goer's lined up anxiously awaiting their turn.  The photos would be available for purchase after the event.

We were greeted by females from the bride and groom's families as we entered the hall.  Each as elaborately dressed as the next, with a token elderly aunt or grandmother thrown into the mix, some of the latter choosing to maintain their modesty even amongst females, still wearing their abaya and Niqab or veil.

Even though we were almost two hours late, very few people were yet seated.  Younger girls scurried around the room, exchanging greetings (three kisses on the cheek for friends).  Some of the more elderly ladies were already seated, most of them along either side of a catwalk which extended the length of the room.  I would find out later that this was a strategic position allowing women with eligible sons to catch a glimpse of a potential future daughter-in-law as a bevy of unmarried girls swayed and sashayed down the runway to the beat of very tribal-sounding drums.

We took a seat towards the back of the room, far from the loudspeakers (thank goodness).  Waitresses milled about, serving small sweets and savory pastries and an assortment of chocolates and teas.  

The music (seriously loud) started not long after, and women determinedly made their way to the catwalk, many removing their stilettos and moving up and down the stage in what seemed to me a dance of very primal origin; kind of combination belly dance and indigenous rain dance, undulating their arms and wrists to the thumping beat, often bending at the waist, swaying their hips, bowing their heads and swinging long tresses left to right in a primitive fashion.  Occasionally they would literally start to pulse to the beat.

The bride came in at about 11:00 p.m.  The lights were dimmed, and a video screen showed her extremely slow entrance into the lobby, following her protracted journey through the wedding hall, down the catwalk, and to a dais set up at the end on which she would sit until the end of the evening.  This was her 15 minutes of fame.  All eyes turned to follow her laborious procession. 

Her smile appeared frozen; her steps seemed painful ... I was told this was quite possible given the height of her heels and the weight of her dress.  The walk took no less than 30 minutes, during which she covered maybe 150 feet.  At every step, a photographer leaned in to take a picture, and a bevy of young Philippina girls would lift and arrange the voluminous train to allow for the next step and the procession to continue.

Once the bride was seated, the lights were turned back up.  Guests began moving up to congratulate her and kiss her accordingly.  This was pretty much it for focus on the bride.  The dancing resumed, this time with money being showered on some of the girls dancing as a compliment to their skill.  My daughter joined a bunch of other little girls on stage; she thought it was a blast to have people give her money to dance.  Much to her dismay I sent her back to the stage to re-deposit the wad of cash she'd accumulated over the course of three songs.  Apparently the money, which was subsequently collected by one older lady, was meant for the band.  

Finally, it was time for the groom to enter.  This was announced by the band, and all ladies in the hall except me (being the only Westerner) and the bride covered their hair and any exposed flesh.  The groom was accompanied by his father, and I believe a few brothers and uncles.  It took him perhaps a minute to make it to the front of the room where the bride was seated.  He sat there for about thirty minutes with the bride, and the older female members of the groom's family came forth to congratulate him.  

After he left, the veils and shawls came back off, and it was time to eat.  We went off to a separate hall to collect our food from an elaborate buffet and returned to our table to partake in the meal.

It is at this point that I met my friend's very beautiful and young sister.  My friend informed me that she was the only daughter in the family who had not yet married.  Apparently no suitor suited her, and her parents would not force her to marry against her wishes.  I was told that princes and paupers (and a few very established cousins!) from Qatar, Saudi, Dubai, Kuwait and Bahrain had been equally unsuccessful at securing her hand in marriage.  She wondered if perhaps her sister was pining for another unattainable love.  She told me to keep my eyes open and my ears peeled, on the off chance I might know of someone with potential.  I admit that at this point the conversation was all getting just a little too surreal!

Our duty done, I picked up my now sleeping daughter, extended my thanks, and bid my farewells.  I collected my phone on the way out, and paused just along enough while getting into the car to see the throngs of Arabic and Asian night-owls still making their way to Ponderosa's at 1:30 in the morning.

I must admit there are moments when I truly struggle to understand what lurks beneath the surface in this Land of Sand.  The truly odd juxtaposition of an American steakhouse icon and an Arabic wedding hall; steak and potato salad buffet on the one side - moutabal, masboot and hummus buffet on the other.   Abayas and sandals at the one - Pompadours and stilletos at the other.  Young couples out for a late-night soda at the one - young ladies trying to secure their future through tribal dance at the other.  

It certainly wasn't the first time the surrealism had left me intrigued and slightly baffled.  And it certainly hasn't been the last.  But weddings in the ME definitely rate right up there with some of the more enchantingly bizarre experiences I've had.

 Excerpt from Al Arabiya News.

Excerpt from Al Arabiya News.