(EDITOR'S NOTE: Keyser High School teacher Susan Hamilton was able to travel to Qatar and Oman as part of a professional/cultural exchange grant program, and promised to keep her students and our readers informed by writing periodic accounts of her trip. This is the ninth installment.)
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Keyser High School teacher Susan Hamilton was able to travel to Qatar and Oman as part of a professional/cultural exchange grant program, and promised to keep her students and our readers informed by writing periodic accounts of her trip. This is the ninth installment.)
By Susan Hamilton
For the News Tribune
DOHA, Qatar - The Qatari cultural workshop and dinner last night was definitely not a waste of time. I arrived in Qatar believing I had a much firmer grasp on general Arab culture than I had before I left West Virginia. The first thing I learned from the workshop was that some aspects of Arab culture are shared, but there are individual nuances to each Arab country. In short, I was left feeling a bit like I know nothing. Jon Snow from “Game of Thrones” and I have something in common.
The flag of Qatar is maroon and white. The maroon represents the blood of Qataris lost in the Ottoman war. There are nine triangles representing the land of the original nine United Arab Emirate (UAE) nations. This is to show respect for the past. The Arab speaking countries that Qatar most closely identifies with are Bahrain, and Kuwait. Their belief is that they were once all nomadic people who shared desert, and they still share borders; therefore, they share blood / brotherhood.
Qatar used to feel this affinity with Saudi Arabia as well, but that was before the blockade. There was an incident involving state sponsored hacking which damaged the reputation of Qatar’s Emir. Saudi Arabia were the alleged hackers, yet when confronted, the Saudis instituted a blockade by all UAE nations against Qatar. Presumably the Saudis were angered / embarrassed at being caught / accused.
The blockade resulted in Qatar being removed from the UAE. Qatar now stands alone in the Persian Gulf. People in the country still consider Bahrain and Kuwait their brothers, and are deeply hurt that these two countries did not stand with them in is conflict; however, Qatar has been more successful alone than they were with the UAE. The combination of being forced out of the UAE, and their success since this happened, has resulted in Qatar having a highly nationalistic identity.
The population of Qatar is approximately 2.6 million. Of that, only 200,000 are of Qatari nationality, and only 600,000 are women, both due to the large number of male migrant workers and expats who live here. Qatari migrant workers are primarily from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and India. They are called migrant workers because they have come here from other places to take labor jobs. They do not move around from place to place as we might expect. Currently they are primarily working on infrastructure and preparation for the FIFA World Cup in 2022. When the workers arrive in Qatar their passports are taken for the duration of their time working in the country. This is to prevent them from migrating to other countries illegally.
It was not clear to me whether these workers come with some contract or agreement in hand: kind of like indentured servitude. I didn’t have a good opportunity to ask. I do know that the government is making efforts to ensure all migrant workers are treated fairly and humanely, that they are housed, clothed, fed, and not subject to unfair work practices. The expat community is from all over the world and are working professional rather than labor jobs. Many people in baking and finance, education, tourism, medicine, US Air Force, and UN coalition military
Qatar has a good relationship with the United States, hosting the largest U.S. military facility in the Middle East. In 2018, Qatar committed to expand two air bases to accommodate new infrastructure, operational requirements, and also new family housing for the nearly 11,000 personnel stationed here. Of course Qatar benefits economically from having a US base, but in recent years, the base in Qatar has been integral to defending US interests and operations in the region.
The other activity we engaged in yesterday afternoon was a guided tour of Souk Waqif. You all know that a souk is a traditional market in Oman. It is the same in Qatar, and around the Arab world. The word Waqif means standing. This market was originally a market for traders who would jump out of their boats, come to the souk, trade, and return as quickly as possible to their ships. In ancient times it was muddy along the coast because there were more rains than there are now. Mud and rain also prevented traders from sitting down, another reason it is called the standing market (Souk Waqif).
In order to honor the original Bedouin traders who opened them, the souk shops here still bear their names, regardless of who owns them now. In 2004, a fire swept through the old Souk Waqif and burned 89 percent of the shops and buildings that were there. The souk has been rebuilt since then and great care was taken to match the style of the original buildings that remained standing. The new- old Souk has been extended and is now segregated by product in order to help customer bargaining.
Bargaining is expected at this souk, and a customer better be ready to walk away if they don’t get the price offered for an item. We were advised to initially offer half of the items cost and then bargain up from there until the seller agreed on a price. We were advised to never pay full price for anything. I had a bargaining experience for a hand -tooled leather gun holster I wanted for my husband. I offered half price, the shop owner raised my offer. I then made a new offer that was a bit higher than my original offer. The seller didn’t agree, so I walked out. The seller came and chased me down in the market to tell me he would accept my offer, so my husband now has a hand-tooled Qatari 9mm shoulder holster: sweet victory! No one else in my group had this kind of luck.
The shops in this souk were very different from the ones in Oman. Some were similar of course, spices, and handcrafts, food items, clothing, and touristy souvenirs. The spices in the market are loose just as they were in Oman. Like the Omani people, in Qatar they also believe in trying herbal remedies for illness before going to a doctor. Having the spies sold loose allows people to mix them as they like ad purchase only the quantity they need.
As I ventured farther and farther into Souk Waqif, I learned this souk was not like the others I had encountered in Oman. The first interesting shop I found was the falconry souk. Falconry has a long history among the Bedouin in Qatar and is still enjoyed today. In the falconry souk someone could buy accessories for their falcon, or they could buy a new falcon. Going out of town and need a baby sitter for your falcon? The falconry souk will house your bird until you return. There is even a falcon hospital right next door to the souk.
A little father in there was a camel souk. I never could ascertain whether this was for show or legitimate. Presumably if someone were in the market for a new camel, the camel souk would be the place to go. There was the equivalent of a pet store, with mostly birds but some exotic and domestic animals as well. What I did not see was a gun souk like the ones in Oman. Honestly, I’m a bit relieved. What I did find was a giant gold thumb. I have no explanation for it.
The Qatari mounted police are based in the Souk and patrol it on a regular basis. They are quite the site to see. As I made my rounds, I came across a stable area full of Arabian horses. I walked through the stable talking and petting the various horses I encountered (I’m a horse lover from way back). I never encountered anyone who questioned why I was there. At the time I thought the stale might be a horse souk. What I later learned was that the stable I browsed through was actually where the mounted police board their horses.
So far Qatar is fascinating. I like the juxtaposition of old and new that is so obvious in Doha. It helps me understand the culture to see the contrast. Some things are similar to Oman, and therefore familiar now, but there is a lot that I don’t understand yet. I am taking notes as quickly as I can from our guides so I may look them over and ask questions later. Right now, it seems like the proper thing to do is just take in the atmosphere and try to better acclimate myself to our new surroundings. When it’s ready, Doha will reveal herself to me. We just aren’t properly acquainted yet.