Expat Eyes

This blog contains the photographs, observations and reflections of Rena Diana, an educator and writer, during extended stays in the Arabian Gulf, China, and Mongolia.

Archive for the category “Middle East”

Lessons from My Students Part 2

“Building good citizen (s) is the aim of each country that plan (s) to develop itself and provide  (a) good life for its people. Education is the main and only road to have good citizen (s). The more the country provides (an) advanced education system, the more the country achieves progress in all fields.”
Abbas , prospective university student
Education City, Qatar

(Corrections in parentheses are mine.)

Once again, in this post, I am protecting the privacy of my students. These are not their real names. (See May 14 Post: Lessons from My Students Part 1)

So here I am with my remaining seven students. Abbas, father of a four-year-old boy and twins – boy and girl- aged two. He is serious, hard working, and earnest, often asking the questions that fuel further learning for the entire group. Siraj has two boys and a little girl, whom he calls “his heart”. Siraj is a charmer, our class comedian, with an open and endearing manner. Very witty, ambitious, quite anxious about his skills in English and his prospects academically. He calls me “Teacher”, and I call him “Student”, in an on-going playful banter. Quiet, mysterious and dignified Naseem is the only unmarried one in the group. He has very little confidence in his ability in English and tends to miss class often. His deep, expressive eyes speak volumes.  I get the feeling he is overwhelmed with his life in general these days. Basim has an easy smile and a sweet disposition. He has two young sons. A first he stays virtually silent, as if he cannot believe he will ever be able to utter a word of English- much less read and write it- but as the weeks move along, he speaks out more and more, and smiles more and more. The most confident student in the class is Abdul, who puts in many hours revising his essays and taking practice tests in both reading and listening comprehension. At first, he politely rebuffs me, as if he needs no teacher. He is proud and intense, the father of two daughters. As the class proceeds, he relaxes, participates more, and begins to ask for help. This pleases me because his contributions to our class conversations are helpful.  Hani is the cool dude in the group.  Another charmer.  On a couple occasions, he arrives in class in jeans or some neat, casual outfit, which always throws me, as I am accustomed to seeing him clothed in Arab attire. He is very smart, a quick study, deceptively so. One of those students who appears to be distracted, then excels on an assessment.  Hani is warm, kind, clearly a leader, and totally devoted to his three young children, sometimes showing me their photos on his iphone. And, finally, there is Shihad, the oldest of the group at 37. Indeed he seems like “an elder” to me as well, with his direct, intelligent gaze and his no nonsense, mature approach to all assignments. The others respect him and look up to him as a sort of spokesman for the group, and so do I.

Finally, I could pave my way to my dream to study to get a degree in my favorite subject at one of the most well known universities. I believe that this will give me a tremendous opportunity for my future career. I am committed to being a student at University. I promise to study hard  and do my best in order to encourage (other) young Qatari (s) to join  (a) university and also to be an ideal example of my company. I am sure that the excellent quality education system in the University will be very helpful to my career and my life. Also (it will) contribute (to) the growth of education in Qatar and … the well being of the people here.”


These are grown men in a traditionally male-dominated culture. They are vulnerable in this class, however, and I am aware of that, so I tread lightly. I cannot exactly tell them what to do in the same way I would the American middle schoolers I have taught (although how much even they complied is certainly debatable!) I am with these seven students for as many as five hours a day, several days a week. Everyday there is a break to observe the Call to Prayer- and to smoke and drink coffee. Sometimes these breaks extend to 45 minutes. After a couple weeks of this disappearing act, I decide to exert a bit more discipline and control in the group. One day, as they leave, I say, “Okay, gentlemen. Take your break, but be back here at exactly 3:00 o’clock.” Within a split second, Siraj responds, “3:00 P.M. or A.M.?!” –At that moment, I know we are all going to get along just fine…

Next Post: Lessons from My Students Part 3

Lessons from My Students Part 1

 “Education for a New Era”- Mission of Qatar Supreme Education Authority

(Please note: I am deliberately vague in this post to protect the privacy of my students. These are not their real names.)

 It is an early October day, and I am on my way to my first day of teaching at a university in the vast Education City compound in Doha.  (See May 7 Post: “The Brightest Possible Future”.) I am dressed in my normal attire here- a cotton skirt and blouse, slipper-like flat shoes, with a long  pashmina draped over my shoulders for warmth in the air conditioned spaces and for protection from the blazing sun- as well as a head covering (rarely necessary, but always a good idea to have here, just in case.) The sheer scale of the building I am entering is intimidating. It takes me a while to locate the door I am supposed to enter. When I do find it, it is so immense that, once again in this part of the world, I feel  disoriented, like Alice in Wonderland, suddenly a midget. I enter, get security clearance from the guard, and text Mary, who hired me, that I am here, ready to begin. Mary comes down and escorts me through a maze of massive corridors around majlis courtyards through a cozy study area with high school and college kids snuggled up close together, studying,  and chatting (finally- something more familiar) to my classroom- huge and modern, where my students are waiting.  I take a deep breath and walk in.


Even though the classes at these universities are co-educational, my group happens to be 16 young Muslim men.  One young Muslim woman joins us for a few classes to prepare for a certain test. (I love looking at her shoes under her abaya. One day bright pink Sketchers, the next day black patent spike heels.) My students, age 17-37, are divided into two groups. Some are being groomed for positions in the Ministry of the Interior (MOI). They therefore must pass certain exams in English. The others are employees in a local company who are participating in a pilot program. They started working right after high school and have distinguished themselves as highly capable, with leadership potential. In order to be promoted, however, they must earn college degrees in their field. Their company is giving them an extended paid leave to gain the English skills they need to pass the entrance examination to this university. The company is subsidizing this training and will pay for their entire undergraduate education, if admitted. Pretty impressive.


My brain must go into high gear now.  Mary is rapidly explaining sophisticated equipment, new technology applications and software to me, along with school procedures, schedules, and more. I need to learn 16 Arab names, pronto. (See February  13 Post: What’s In A Name?) The men are busy at their computers, writing essays. I decide to go around and introduce myself to each one of them and jot down their names and some notes. They are polite. A bit distant and formal. Quite dignified in their long white gowns and headscarves, which here are called thobes and gaytras, although there are many terms used for these. I can see immediately that their written English is  very weak, and their spoken English is not much better.


Over the next few days, I get to know them a little better.  The 7 MOI students are more confident in their English skills, as they have just finished high school. As I observe them and interact with them, they are, I realize, like adolescents anywhere in the world. Posturing and pretending a bit. There is an Alpha Group, a Wannabe Group, and some Outsiders. One student, Mohammed, is studious and aloof. Another, Rafan, is sassy and suave, constantly texting on his Smartphone. Sometimes they wear baseball hats instead of gaytras. A couple even wear jeans on occasion. I learn that there are no strict rules regarding men’s clothing. They are taking the practice IELTS and TOEFL Exams at testing sites in Qatar and Bahrain regularly to prepare for the university admission test. They make decent scores, and gradually no longer need the class.  

Barkat is a lively, charming fellow who enjoys showing me photographs of his older siblings, currently studying in the USA. He remains a few weeks longer than the others. It becomes clear that he is not so carefree  and blase as he has previously appeared. He wants to ACE the test. And he does.  A few days later he waltzes into the classroom to surprise me.  It is his birthday and he excitedly shows me a picture of his present- a new car, a Toyota. At this point I no longer see Barkat’s thobe and gaytra. I only see his infectious smile and bright eyes and hope that he will prosper in his career in the esteemed Ministry of the Interior…. and in his adult life. 

The MOI students have taught me that all teenagers, no matter what culture- no matter how wealthy and privileged- no matter how protected and scripted their lives are- have the same vulnerabilities, frustrations, fears, and  aspirations. They long to be taken seriously and to belong.

 So now I am left with the 9 working men, who are still struggling mightily with their English.  Over the next few months, we have quite a journey together…

Next Post: My Students Teach Me, Part Two














“The Brightest Possible Future”

“Yes, reform is still young,
but our students and teachers are giving us something invaluable…
the brightest possible future.”
Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, Qatar

Drive onto the over 5,500 acre campus called Education City in Doha, Qatar, and you will be transported into what seems like a fantasy land-  almost a stage set- carefully manicured, with magnificent, bold architecture, striking monuments to the importance of education. (See slide show at end of post.)  And you will see these GIGANTIC inspirational signs at every turn:



Slogans that capture the spirit of our own American educational “Best Practices”. Eloquent, empowering messages. As an educator, I feel a sense of hope whenever I enter this unique compound.  Here I am, in the desert, in miniscule Qatar in the Arabian Gulf, watching Muslim girls and boys taking classes together, where less than a hundred years ago the literacy rate was 0% (see January 17 Post: Back to the Future) and where even a decade ago coeducational classes were unthinkable.

There is a strong commitment to education in both Dubai and Doha.  More than 50% of the population is under 25. As both these countries are catapulting into the international arena, they realize how critical it is for their youth to be well educated.  So, in typical fashion, they are moving at a rapid speed. They have a lot of catching up to do!

“Education and entrepreneurship are the twin underpinnings for building a safe world.”
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Dubai

Qatar, under the brilliant leadership of, Sheikha Mozah, the second wife of Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, has a particularly ambitious, bold and well-articulated plan for education. And they are making it happen.  Historically, well-to-do Qataris went abroad to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees.  Qatari leaders realized that it would make more sense to bring the educational institutions to Qatar, so all of their young people could pursue higher degrees without having to travel and leave their families. The Emir decided to dedicate land and to fund the building of  state-of-the-art facilities toward this purpose. The vast complex, Education City, contains facilities from primary school through university and post-graduate study, including the Academic Bridge Program to support high school students needing further preparation to pursue advanced degrees. It is an innovative and effective model for international education.

The following universities were selected to become part of this enterprise, each having a special focus, which avoids the problems of competition for a small pool of applicants: Carnegie Mellon (Math and Information Technology), Cornell (Science and Pre-Med), Georgetown (International Relations and Pre-Law), Northwestern (Journalism), Texas A & M (Engineering), and Virginia Commonwealth (Arts). Each university operates independently, in collaboration with Qatar Foundation, which oversees the entire effort. The universities bring over their own teachers, staff, and administrators. The curricula are the same as the ones in the USA. All classes are co-educational and conducted in English. The students are predominantly Qatari, although there are some from other Arab countries and a few from the United States. Admission standards are the same, and these Arab-speaking students must take the same tests, in English, that their American counterparts do. In addition, there are well-designed collaborations with local businesses and institutions in both the public and the private sector. The entire city of Doha is rising to the challenge.

As part of the country’s commitment to serious dialogue and a lively intellectual climate, these universities sponsor internationally renowned speakers on a variety of timely and controversial topics: journalists such as Robert Fiske, religious scholars such as Karen Armstrong, technology experts, artists, architects, Nobel scientists, authors, diplomats and more. In addition, the Qatar Foundation sponsors the Doha Debates, held right in Education City, featured on CNN. They tackle the toughest contemporary issues, including the  political tensions in the Middle East. Several nights a week here we can choose to attend a lecture by a distinguished speaker. And there are always as many Qataris in the audience as expats- if not more.

“…to support Qatar on its journey
from a carbon economy to a knowledge economy
by unlocking human potential.”
Mission Statement, Qatar Foundation,

I had the tremendous privilege of teaching Qatari students at one of these universities, which will be the subject of my next post: Lessons from My Students Part 1.  Now, enjoy a 2-minute tour of Education City!

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Five Star Stables

“Thy saddle shall be the seat of prayers to me.
And thou shall fly without any wings
And conquer without any sword.”
from The Qur’an

This is a brief post, focusing on the pictures, which speak for themselves.  It will appeal to equestrians, people who love horses, and anyone interested in the spectacular skyline and extravagances of Dubai. (A note to the regular followers of my posts: If you want to see the photos on them  in their fullness- or the overall blog itself- go to the actual site, expateyes.com, rather than relying on the text that shows up in your email.)

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai is an accomplished and avid horseman, who owns many purebred Arabian horses and participates frequently in international competitions.  He owns stables, racetracks and stud farms in England, Ireland, and Kentucky. Evidently he rides almost every single day, often in the desert or along the shoreline of the Arabian Gulf.  Riding is deeply engrained in his Bedouin roots -remember he is a mere generation away from tribal, desert life- and the enthusiasm is shared by his family members.

In fall 2008, some tourists from Maryland arranged, through a connection of a member in their group, a private tour of the Sheikh’s Zabeel Stables. There is no public access to these, so I felt very fortunate to be included.  The main trainer told us that on the previous day, the Sheikh’s 11-month-old daughter had gone for her first ride! The horses are simply splendid. Each one has two fulltime caretakers or handlers.

The stable compound includes a lap pool, a treadmill, and a Jacuzzi. Let me clarify that these are for the HORSES.                                                                

An Exalted Space

“If one could find the heart of Islamic architecture, might it not lie in the desert, severe and simple in its design, where sunlight brings forms to life?”

I.M. Pei, Architect
Museum of Islamic Art, Philip Jodidio


Journal Entry: March 4, 2011: “The magnificent Museum of Islamic Art on the corniche of Doha, overlooking the Arabian Gulf, inspires in me an appreciation of simplicity, clarity, and elegance. There is a lean, taut, pristine beauty to the building, both inside and out, balanced by a tranquility- a spaciousness- infused by a sense of wonder, a spirit of grace. When I approach this museum and enter it, I am overcome by reverence. My heart is still. My mind is at ease yet fully engaged, alert, awake. It is like entering a hushed holy space, a  prism, a shaft of iridescence- suspended in time. In every direction there are splendid, surprising lines and angles. The multiple intertwined triangles and interlaced circles in the central staircase, floating walkways, window panes, and light fixtures create a dazzling constellation of shapes, many of which are actually reflections and shadows, rather than something you can touch, creating an ambiance of mystery and magic.  The cityscape across the harbor beyond the arched windows seems incorporated into the scene, part of the artwork – as do the terrace fountains and the dhows off the pier. The neutral tones enhance the linear elements, the bold structural compositions. The play of natural light creates constantly shifting patterns, which underscores the ephemeral intricacy of the overall effect.  The designs are different, depending on the time of day. The Museum of Islamic Art beckons me to stop, observe, digest, and look again. As I turn around to take it all in, I am twirling inside a kaleidoscope. How appropriate that the course in illustrated journaling I am taking here is called Sacred Pages. The word to describe how I feel in this place is exhilarated…”

I.M. Pei, Chinese architect born in Canton in 1917, took several years to decide upon a signature design statement for this museum, which he assumed would be his last great contribution to world architecture. He finally decided upon the mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun in Cairo, built from 876-879, inspired by its “austerity and simplicity,” its distinctive angular façade.

Enjoy the gallery of photographs below. You can click on any single photo to enlarge it.

“It is the light of the desert that transforms the architecture into a play of light and shadow.”
I.M. Pei

Next Post: Five Star Stables

Round and Round She Goes

“…And Where She Stops,
 Nobody Knows!”

Isn’t that the little rhyme that goes with Pin The Tail On The Donkey, played at children’s birthday parties? When players take turns being blindfolded and spun around, then released, in a dizzy whirl, to find the donkey? This is a perfect metaphor for getting places in Dubai and Doha. It does feel like a game.

When I arrived in Dubai, my husband told me not to be concerned when I get in a taxi and the driver heads off in the exact opposite direction of where I am headed. That is just the way it works here. The roads loop around in all directions and on top of themselves, often into detours at building sites, eventually ending at the proper destination. There may be some deeply engrained Arab rationale for this, but I have not figured out what it is. You go north to go south, east to go west. It is all one big circle anyway. (I will resist the temptation to play with this as a literary allusion or a religious theme.) No- when it comes to snarled traffic, vague directions, roads to nowhere, and drivers who speak no English, it is hard to wax poetic. A sense of humor is, however, imperative. As is trust in your fellow human beings. “The kindness of strangers…”

In Qatar, I actually got my own driver’s license and joined the throng of cars. Here is the traffic picture in Doha. Main thoroughfares called C Ring and D Ring – except they are straight, not circles. Roads named after members of the royal family, becoming extensions of each other, that disappear into nowhere (i.e. the desert). Slip roads, marginal lanes, underpasses, overpasses. And- most important- the ROUNDABOUTS, that have colloquial names not marked anywhere on them or on most maps, so references to them as landmarks are not helpful at all for at least the first few weeks of driving yourself places.  Then there are drivers who zing from the inner to the outer of the three to four lanes inside roundabouts to exit, with no warning, seeming unconcerned about cutting you off. 360-degree vision is essential. And nerves of steel. I possess neither.

Here are some directions to friends’ homes, with addresses like  Palm Beach Residences, Falcon Street and Al Jazi Gardens, Al Dafna, Gate 6, Villa 32, as they were told me verbatim, written in my journal.

“From West Bay go as if you were to go to the Ritz. At the Intercon Roundabout go straight ahead. (When you are approaching a circle, which way is straight?) At the next roundabout go left. Go straight again through the next roundabout and then right at the next, the West Entrance of the West Bay Lagoon. Go into the Lagoon and go straight ahead at the roundabout over the bridge….”(It took me a while to find that one.)

“When driving from Rainbow Roundabout to Qatar Sports Roundabout, take the 2nd right turn. At the end of this road, turn left and the compound is along the road a bit on your right.” (Better.)

“Start at Rainbow Roundabout (which way?) Go straight across Intercon Roundabout and turn left. Do not carry on over the bridge. At the next roundabout, go all the way around and come back going the opposite direction. There will be a mosque and and two embassies on your right. Look for a walled villa with umbrellas in the courtyard.” (Found it on the third try.)

“We are in Villa 19, Al Fardan Gardens, near the airport slip road, opposite the Lulu on D Ring.”

Here is one final journal entry, from March 2010: “Yesterday I got lost. I needed to get lost. It increased my confidence. I followed a friend’s directions to the new Lulu Hypermarket beyond Landmark Mall, where I was told they have the best selection of fresh fruits and vegetables in the city. Once I got going, I realized, too late, that he had been approaching it from another part of town. Thus, I got all turned around. I missed the necessary slip road and went many miles out of the way. At one point I was pretty far out in the desert, but I could not do a U-Turn due to a construction barrier. Since I am rarely in a hurry here- no appointments to make, no particular schedule- it was all right. I figured as long as I could see the tall towers of the West Bay peninsula, where we live, in the remote distance, I would be able to work my way back there.”

Mission accomplished. The fresh produce was delicious!
Next Post: An Exalted Space

Who Do I Say I Am?


“We are at home in the world because we are at home with ourselves.”
 Pema Chodron

Dinner Party

You ask me where I am from
And why I am here.
You ask about my life.
I do not know what to say.
This is no time for glib banter.
So I am silent.
You offer me some tea,
a gift of grace,
the solace of this ritual.
I am thankful for
your gesture and
a moment
to gather myself and
many miles and
many years.
A chance
to consider an answer to
your question,
to find
my compass
and my voice.

I heard a commentator on NPR remark recently that very few people are where they are from anymore.  In the expat world, “Where are you from?” is a question asked numerous times every single day. It always gives me pause.  How do I answer? Where I was born and grew up? Where we raised our children? Where we own a home? Where we are currently residing and working ? I have different responses, from the shorthand one to the longer narrative, depending on the situation.

Laced in the question “Where are you from” is a deeper one: “Who are you?” The poem above was prompted by a social occasion in a lovely restaurant overlooking Dubai. My husband and I were meeting many new people that night. We knew only one guest, a dynamic, brilliant Lebanese woman who has become a dear friend. She had recently introduced us to an elegant lady who was giving herself a 79th birthday party. Born in Poland, the hostess has lived all over the world, from Ecuador to Cypress to Germany to Ethiopia to Greece to various places in the Middle East.  I was seated next to the owner of my favorite art gallery in Dubai . (See the April 5 Post, The Majlis Gallery.) I was delighted to meet her, having heard a bit about her colorful life, which she now divides between Dubai and Cornwall, England, where she teaches sailing.  Being impressed by her commitment to preserving the culture of Dubai and to promoting the artists in this area, I was eager to engage her in conversation. Then it was my turn to talk, and I  withdrew. Thus, the tea to my rescue.

Reflecting on this later, I realized that this is what is so enlarging – and unnerving- about living in another culture, after your children have grown up, and you are no longer moving in the circle of other mothers, and you have left your neighborhood and your professional community. You have no obvious identity, other than your gender and your nationality, and even your nationality is not necessarily apparent to a stranger. Sometimes your marital status and your profession are quickly evident. But that is it. No one knows one single thing about you and your other life. Your family. Your background. Your  lifestyle. Your previous jobs. Your education.  Your interests. You are just you. Period. An individual on this earth. A citizen of the world. A  pilgrim. One of  millions.

This is an invitation to ponder how you define yourself. What are the first words that come out of your mouth? Most of us who are parents- me included- mention our children in the first breath. Then what? For, shocking as it may sound, these people do not want to hear about your children. Okay.  My career as an educator? My spiritual and political beliefs? My southern background?  My interest in the arts, poetry and literature? My love of nature? Are those my descriptors? You find yourself at a moment of reckoning when you meet someone in a foreign country who asks about your life. What do you tell them? What do you leave out? —And isn’t this the real human journey? To find our way and speak our truths? The search for identity…

Travel and living in different cultures does indeed transform us, but we are still carrying along our essential selves. We are moving in both an outer and an inner landscape.  What we experience and observe colors and is colored by who we are.  Ultimately, it seems to me,  we reside  more within ourselves than in any external place. What is in our minds and hearts creates the reality of our lives.  Buddha said we are what we think.  We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are. And it is in the sudden epiphanies of how we  explain ourselves to others, to “foreigners,” that we really get to know ourselves….as we tell our stories.

Next Post: Round and Round She Goes

The Majlis Gallery

There is a vibrant art scene in both Dubai and Doha, which I will explore further in future posts. My favorite gallery in Dubai is The Majlis Gallery, the oldest one in the city. It is in a classic windtower courtyard home built in 1940.“Majlis” means gathering place in Arabic.  Every home in this part of the world contains a majlis for men and a separate one for women. They serve as the heart of their families and their culture. This gallery is owned by Alison and Dick Collins, a British couple who moved here in the mid 1970’s, whom I had the immense pleasure to meet.  Alison arrived with a background in art, an indomitable spirit and a keen interest in foreign cultures. Dick, a veterinarian, and equally adventurous, soon became the personal physician to Sheikh Mohammed’s famous, magnificent Arabian stallions. Dick and Alison moved into this house soon after they arrived, and they raised a family here. They converted it to a gallery in 1989, and it has thrived ever since. Visit its website: www.themajlisgallery.com. The exhibits and classes they offer are exceptional, and the space is simply exquisite. Treat yourself to a virtual browse in this slide show below- about 60 seconds. Next Post: Who Do I Say I Am?

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Wandering Through Bastakia

“Ah, simple pleasures, so familiar in a land so far removed! Not in great towns, not in palaces, had we felt the tie of humanity which binds East and West, but in that distant roadside village…we claimed kinship with the toilers of an alien soil. For one night we, too, were taking our share in their lives, with one flash of insight the common link of joy and sorrow was revealed to us- of a different civilization and a different world.” 

                  Gertrude Bell, Persian Pictures, 1894

The Bastakia is my favorite section of Dubai.  My most pleasant days here are the ones spent wandering through this charming, unique part of the city, a quaint village located on the creek opening into the Arabian Gulf. This is the site of the original city.  On the other side of the creek are the colorful, bustling old souqs (bazaars), where locals and travelers alike have bartered for spices,  fabrics,  and pearls for centuries. The best way to reach the souq is by boats, called abras, that serve as water taxis.

Named for the town of Basta in Iran, the Bastakia is filled with the famous windtower courtyard homes built by Persian merchants in the 1800’s. (See my post, Windtowers to Skyscrapers, March 26.)  These handsome mud and stone dwellings are packed close together, along narrow, shaded alleyways, which keep residents as cool as possible during the hot summer days. The entire area has now been converted into a maze of art galleries, craft workshops, cafes, and small boutiques.  Handsome Arabesque motifs are incised over doors and windows and on shallow recessed wall panels.  There are three categories of decorations: birds, geometric, and floral, especially flowers and foliage in vases. As I peek in windows, walk into hidden rooms like inner sanctuaries, peer up inside the stately windtowers, and climb stairs to welcoming balconies and rooftops, I am curious about the Arab families who made their lives here, working and raising families. This was clearly a place where children flourished, roaming freely within the safety net of their extended families.  I also am enchanted, over and over again, at the artwork in all media, both traditional and contemporary, that is creatively displayed here.

The slide show below features the Bastakia neighborhood.  Take a stroll! (approximately 90 seconds) Next Post: The Majlis Gallery

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Next Post: The Majlis Gallery

Windtowers to Skyscrapers


“To arrange three stones in a fireplace on which to set a pot was the only architecture that many of them required.”

Wilfred Thesiger

The Past: For centuries, the dwellings of Gulf Arabs were virtually non-existent. Home for Bedouins was where they slept that night, either under the stars or in simple tents of woven goat hair blankets. Royal families lived in more elaborate tent structures consisting of several “rooms” divided by drapes, made comfortable with thick carpeting and cushions. Modern desert camps for tourists resemble those traditional compounds.

The first distinctive architecture in Dubai appeared relatively recently, in the late 19th century. It was imported by merchants from a town in southern Persia called Basta, who were re-settling in the tiny fishing, pearl diving, and trading village of Dubai on the creek opening into the Persian (now Arabian) Gulf.  That creek is still simply called The Creek by the locals. The Persian immigrants built handsome homes with windtowers and courtyards, designed to adapt to the harsh desert climate. Green, sustainable architecture, before those terms were even used. I have never seen anything like them. They are stunning.

The windtowers are designed to capture the breezes from The Creek and the sea, funneling the air down to the rooms below.  The houses and towers are made of petrified coral blocks dug from The Creek and bonded with sarooj- a mixture of clay, manure, and water.  Ceilings and roofs are constructed around hardwood beams finished with a mixture of straw and silt. Since it rarely rains, the roofs are flat, providing another gathering and sleeping area for residents, depending on the season. They serve as exterior rooms, designed to maximize exposure to winds for cooling, as they are surrounded by perforated parapets. When it does rain, the run-off spills through spouts and can be collected for other purposes, such as  washing clothes or watering plants.

The elegant functional form of the windtowers is beautiful in itself. The Arabs, however, with their love of elaborate mosaics and decorative patterns, have added geometric and floral designs wherever they can.  Thus, there are finely carved ventilation screens, arches and balcony balustrades made from limestone slabs covered with chalk and water paste. Intricately carved wooden doors, with fanlight panels over them to diffuse the light and increase airflow, enhance the artistic effect. An intriguing side note: the stone balconies on traditional homes in the Middle East, with Arabesque motifs cut into them, are meant to both let in air AND to conceal the women sitting on them.


The Present: My previous posts have alluded to the impressive energy and imagination fueling the emergence of Dubai and Qatar as cosmopolitan international centers. Nowhere is that spirit more evident than in the bold, innovative architecture in these cities.  The pictures below tell the story.  These gleaming steel and glass buildings, in such extraordinary shapes, make a striking contrast to the limestone, coral and mud structures of olden days. When known, the architect’s name is in the caption on the photograph, which you can read by moving your cursor over the image.

The Future:  In December 2010 Doha was awarded the World Cup for 2022.  Most people on the planet are skeptical that they will be able to pull this off, this miniscule dot of a country, with summer temperatures of over 125 degrees Fahrenheit! Well, here are just a few of their plans, already underway: lodging for tourists on floating hotels off the Pearl Island; free public transportation throughout the city on a “People Mover”; covered stadiums made comfortable by vast cooling systems and remote control clouds (stadiums which they will then fold up and donate to Third World countries).

Big dreams. Smart ideas.  I, for one, hope they succeed, especially if they are sensitive to the environment as they proceed. If they do, we are all winners. Look at the pride on this young girl’s face on Qatar National Day soon after the awarding of the  World Cup!       Next Post: Wandering through Bastakia

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