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 tag “Gertrude Bell”

Souq Waqif

“Shopping with these merchants is not merely the going through of certain forms for the acquisition of necessary commodities- it is an art… an amusement…a study in character and national characteristics.”
Gertrude Bell, 1894

My favorite place in Doha, in addition to the Museum of Islamic Art, is Souq Waqif, which literally means “market standing.” It is located along a dry riverbed, the musheireb, near the corniche along the Arabian Gulf. In olden times, this was the center of town, and the vendors would stand by their temporary market stalls, ready to move them as the river rose and its waters encroached.

Journal Entry, March 2010: “It is dusk in the souq. The long afternoon siesta is over. As I park my car between two mosques, the solemn chant of the Call to Prayer rings out, ricocheting between the speakers.  Muslims, mostly men, file into the mosque, leaving their dusty sandals in a neat row beside the entrance. Women have set up tables to sell their wares. Jewelry, fabrics, snacks. Some have bowls of eggs they will fry on iron skillets. I search for one particular store, which sells handsome, rugged old furniture. No one can give me directions, even the policeman standing on a crate in the middle of a small traffic circle. I take this as an invitation to simply wander around some more. Who knows what else I might discover? As the sky darkens, colorful lights come on, and the market comes to life. This is when the real action happens. I sit down at the Lebanese café on the main pedestrian boulevard to sip delicious mint lemonade, people gaze and jot down notes in my journal. This is a popular gathering spot for locals and expats alike. Next to me,  men and women are smoking shisha.”

The souq , a maze of narrow alleyways, twisting among simple mud dwellings,  captures the flavor of the Arab world. Fragrances of incense, perfumed oils, and spices. Ginger from China, teas from Ceylon, cinnamon from India, medicinal herbs from Iran, cardamom, saffron and Oudh (sandalwood.)  Wooden carts display dyes, kohl, hookah (“hubbly bubbly”) pipes, mubkhari (mud incense burners), pumice stones,  brass dalla (coffee pots) and even small pets in cages. Closet-size shops brim with wares: pashminas, cookware, tools, Aladdin Lamps, tin lanterns, daggers and stacks of Bedouin cushions and camel blankets woven in bright primary colors.In the distance, stately minarets and chedis of mosques, topped with the crescent moon symbol, form striking silhouettes.

Muslim Qatari families meander about. Lively brown-eyed children climb over and under benches and tables and bolts of cloth.  Women are gliding- not walking- in their graceful, flowing abayas.  Young Muslim couples stroll along beside each other, their private emotions well concealed by their attire and demeanor. There is something enchanting about how some of the women, their faces entirely covered by a simple black scarf, whisper to their companions.

I purchase a few items. Several pashminas. Bronze camel candleholders. A book of essays written by young Qatari women. It still feels strange to me to bargain down the prices, especially since they are so low by American standards. It is expected, however, so I am refining my approach with the right phrases: “Oh, no, that is much more than I want to spend.” Or “But I saw this at another shop for much less.” Or- and this line works the best-“I do not have that much money with me.” Thus the bantering continues and a mutual price is agreed on. A friendly young man urges me to purchase some of his Omani silver jewelry and silver crown-type headdresses by putting them on me. I appease him by buying a couple pieces. They will always remind me of this day, this place.

An unfamiliar sight: old men sitting or lying in wheelbarrows, which they use to ferry about shoppers’ purchases. Human camels on wheels. They seem remarkably cheerful.

A familiar sight: a young adolescent boy, around twelve, still soft, smooth and pudgy in the cheeks, proudly wearing a thobe and ghutra, but awkward and self-conscious, flipping his head-scarf this way and that to get the right effect, tripping a bit over his gown.  A rite of passage. A man-child trying out his new identity. Like a young American boy wearing his first tie.

Journal Entry, April 2010:  “I have come to the souq to pick up some silver necklaces for my daughters and nieces. The designer, a Qatari man, has fashioned their names in Arabic on them. The mid-day Call to Prayer begins. Shopkeepers shut their doors to rest. Some head to the mosque or kneel on their prayer rugs. As I leave, I notice a South Asian man, probably a Pakistani, sweeping the street in the glare of the sun. I wonder when he gets to rest….”           Next Post: Our Global Family:Glimpses

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

Cocktails Anyone?

“The Sheikh, being much concerned over the risk his family was running in the plague-stricken town, had taken the precaution of having in six bottles of brandy, the most convenient medicine he could obtain….But on one luckless night, when his wife happened to enter there, she espied the brandy lurking in a dark corner. Being a lady of marked religious convicitions, she at once called to mind the words which the Prophet has pronounced against alcoholic liquors, and without much ado opened the bottles and poured out their contents upon the floor.”

Gertrude Bell, 1894

I forgot the sixth most frequently asked question. (See the January 23 Post, Five Frequently Asked Questions) Can expats drink alcohol in Muslim countries like Dubai and Qatar? The answer is a simple yes. Explaining how and where is more complicated.

Muslims are not supposed to drink alcohol. As to whether they actually abstain, I cannot speak from firsthand experience, as I have never been with a devout Muslim in a situation where he or she might be tempted to partake. On the other hand, secondhand sources, such as contemporary memoirs and novels as well as anecdotal evidence shared by our friends here, indicate that many do indeed drink alcohol- some heavily- in the privacy of their homes. I have heard it said that they even go to the bars where westerners flock, but they are not wearing their Arab attire when they are there. Muslims incognito, so to speak.  My guess is that adherence among Muslims to this religious commandment is not unlike Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus to theirs: inconsistent and certainly not universal. Gertrude Bell’s remark above refers to a visit to Persia, where the rules were not as strictly enforced. For example, on several occasions she mentions the “fragrant wine of Shiraz” and “the choicest of the forbidden juices of the grape”. Throughout the narratives  of  Thesiger and Stark, who travelled almost wholly in the Arabian Gulf, on every social occasion they drank weak hot tea, camel milk, and cardamom flavored coffee. Never a mention of alcohol.

On a related note, in public settings, Muslims, both men and women, enjoy smoking shisha or hookah pipes, sometimes known as Hubbly Bubbly. Tourists often assume they are smoking marijuana, but this is not the case. The smoke is flavored with herbs “made to order”. It is a rather elaborate process, involving combining herbs and tobacco, heating water in a glass container, and connecting long tubes to a pipe. The pipe is usually shared among friends and family members, and it is an enjoyable, relaxing social custom among Arabs. I often see groups of women out together smoking shisha pipes, laughing and trading tales. These Arab women get just as lively as we American women do, all talking at once!

Back to alcohol. Expatriates in both Dubai and Doha must first go through a lengthy process to obtain Residency Permits. Without those, you cannot do anything. You cannot even stay here for more than a month. For Dubai, I had to go through multiple hoops, including trips to the US State Department AND the courthouse in the capital of the state where we were wed for new official signatures on our original marriage certificate, to prove I am actually married to my husband, since he was “sponsoring” me. But that is another story.

Only after you have your Residency Permit can you apply for a License to Purchase Liquor. In Dubai, there are liquor stores tucked in out-of-the-way places behind certain grocery stores. They don’t make it easy! You have to really want it in order to go to the trouble to buy it!  As for places to drink, restaurants in hotels and other mostly expat areas, like Palm Jumeirah, serve alcohol. Dubai markets itself as a tourist destination, so it is fairly accommodating as it woos international travelers who want to shop in the up-scale stores and frolic on the beach. BUT do not drink on the beach! There is a limit to the government’s tolerance, and drinking outdoors in public areas is simply not permitted.

Qatar is a more conservative Muslim country, focusing on education, sports and the arts more than finance and tourism. Only restaurants in international hotels serve alcohol, along with those “off-shore” on the Pearl Island.  And, up until recently, there has been only one liquor store in the entire country. That’s right. One. And it is in the middle of the desert, right next to the non-descript building that serves as the Catholic Church. Intentional? Probably. Qatar is in the process of building a liquor store on The Pearl, so that makes a grand total of two.

Procuring an Alcohol License in Qatar is an even longer, more involved process than in Dubai. Among other things, your employer has to write on the form how much money you earn each month. How much alcohol you are allowed to purchase depends on how much you earn. Some assume that this is an attempt to prohibit the migrant workers from becoming intoxicated.  I do not know. No comment. Needless to say, our allotment, as with all professional expats, is relatively high. Embarassingly so. How much do they think we drink? Whatever the case, on our first trip to this warehouse size store- as well supplied as one anywhere, by the way- we were soon to host an office party. Therefore, we filled a grocery cart to overflowing with bottles of wine, beer, vodka, scotch, etc. We needed assistance from the porter at our apartment to get it onto a trolley, across the lobby, and into the elevator. For the first- and only- time in my expat experiences, I confess I felt a bit like the stereotype of “the brash, showy American…” That has not kept us from going back to the liquor store and having more parties, however!

Next Post: Windtowers to Skyscrapers

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