Thursday, 14 June 2018

Eating like a Bedouin

As the end of Ramadan approached, with only 5 days to go until Eid, I decided to step up my fasting regime to see what it would feel like to echo the diet of the desert nomad, the Bedouin, who famously could survive for months on only dates and camels milk.    Sadly, unable to easily get hold of camels milk, I decided to swap it out for labeneh.... a thick strained yoghurt.  But of course, dates are available aplenty so no issue there.
As is the custom during Ramadan, I'm fasting completely throughout daylight hours, having only 3 dates and a couple of table spoons of labeneh for Iftar  (the Muslim meal to break the fast) and the same before bed, accompanied only by water or black coffee and nothing else.  Muslims will usually eat their last meal, Suhoor, at dawn.... which is around 3am here in Qatar, but having experimented, I felt better having my final sustenance at around 10pm and sleeping through the night.

I had already been fasting during Ramadan, so the daily fast was not a problem, but the first night of eating only the dates and labeneh left me wanting more.  Where was my daily grapefruit?  My delicious chicken salad?  I kept busy and drank alot of water to compensate.  I didn't feel hungry during the day and I think it was only habit that made me crave my usual foods in the evening, because actually I found the combination of dates and labeneh really filling.  

From day two it became much easier and I felt lighter on my feet and by day three, I'd lost a kilo in weight!  This wasn't supposed to be about weight loss, but I'm never one to pass up a good side benefit!!  Day five finally came today and I stepped on the scales to discover another kilo gone!  2 kgs lost in 5 days and I didn't feel any ill effects.

The Bedouin of course would survive alot longer than 5 days on their meagre diet.   Bedouin literally translates as 'desert dwellers', and dates and camels milk were their staple diet for a reason.  They were both readily available to nomadic North African and Middle Eastern pastoral tribes, who would wander for months, from well to well across dusty plains and sand dunes, devoid of any other natural resources.  

The Bedouin would rarely slaughter a camel for meat unless it was very sick or there was a special event such as a wedding or visiting tribe, when custom and legendary Bedouin hospitality would necessitate the sacrifice of one of the herd.  So for most of the time, the two most humble of food sources provided all the nutrition required.

But can they really be good enough to sustain families in the harshest conditions, doing physical work, walking for hundreds of miles for days, weeks and months?  The answer lies in the nutrient density, with camels milk in particular lauded by the Bedu as having strength and power giving properties.  In fact when they couldn't get dates, they would survive on the camels milk alone, and the Bedu revered their camels, referring to them as a 'gift from God'.  A tribe could survive for very little time in the desert without them.

Camels Milk
Often drunk straight from the udder, it would be warm and frothy and plentiful..... the female camels would be milked each morning and evening, and even when suckling young, could provide an additional 4 to 5 litres of milk each day, for 11 months.  Camels have the extraordinary natural ability to continue to produce milk even when going without water for weeks themselves.
Camels milk is the most nutritious of all mammals' milk and is in fact closer to human breast milk than it is to cows milk and is often given to babies who are suffering malnutrition.  Compared to cows milk, it is higher in protein, lower in fat and cholesterol and has three times more vitamin C and 10 times more iron.  It is also interestingly, lower in lactose and has been found to help in reducing levels of the type of haemoglobin in the blood to which glucose attaches, so can be useful in the control of blood glucose levels.  Mineral levels such as magnesium, copper, sodium, zinc and potassium are all higher in camels milk.
Camels milk has some other rare properties.  For example it is high in immunoglobulins which boost the immune system and research has found that it has an impact on reducing allergies, autism and other autoimmune illnesses.  And it also has certain special proteins which have antibacterial and antiviral properties

Pastoral nomadic Bedouin tribes would usually purchase most of their dates from souqs in urban areas, rather than coming across them on their desert journeys, although date palms do grow naturally in many areas.    Before the emergence of a cash economy, many of the nomadic tribes were paid in dates for protecting villages, urban markets and farms from other raiding tribes.
Like camels milk, dates are particularly nutrient dense containing not only carbohydrates but also protein, fibre, potassium, calcium, magnesium, copper, manganese, phosphorus, iron, zinc and vitamin B6.  Many of these particular minerals have been found to be beneficial to bone health and prevent conditions such as osteoporosis. 
The high level of fibre in dates is very beneficial to gut health and contributes to their surprisingly low glycaemic index, despite the carbohydrate content.  Studies have found that dates, eaten in moderation, can help in regulating blood sugar and improving insulin levels due to the zinc and magnesium content.
Dates also contain some powerful anti-oxidants.... flavanoids, carotenoids and phenolic acid.... which all contribute to protecting cells from free radicals, known to cause disease.  These anti-oxidants help to reduce the risk of all manner of diseases such as Alzheimers, cancer, diabetes, eye disorders, heart disease and general inflammation.

Even though in my own small way, I replicated the Bedouin diet, unlike the true desert dwellers of yesteryear,  I'm lucky enough to be living in the comfort of an air conditioned environment, not in the 46 degree heat outside!  I have a deep respect for the Bedouin and their beloved camels, and their clever use of the most meagre of resources to sustain themselves.
I can only assume the secret lies in the combination of the types of carbs, fat and protein contained in these two superfoods, providing them with the nutrients they needed to remain strong, lean and alert.  The discovery of oil and instant wealth has provided access to an abundance of sugary, fattening, unhealthy and unnecessary foods, causing an obesity epidemic in the Gulf in particular (with the exception of Yemen).  In todays world of overconsumption in all things, there is much we and the modern richer cousins of the desert nomads can learn from their life of austerity and discipline.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Gulf Crisis One year on

One year ago, on 5th June 2017, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Qatar, closing land borders, shipping routes and air space, effectively cutting the country off from established supplies of goods and services.  Families were split apart, businesses destroyed and the Gulf Co-operation Council (formed in 1981), once a beacon of stability for the region, plunged into crisis.
Despite the fact that Qatar suffered a 40% drop in imports immediately following the blockade, it quickly secured new supplies from countries such as Turkey, Iran and India and new shipping routes via Oman.
In the meantime the country accelerated its drive towards self sufficiency in food production and now satisfies 92% of demand for milk from local suppliers.  In addition, according to local Arabic newspaper Arrayah, Qatar now produces 98% of its need for fresh poultry, 80% fish, 80% dates and 24% of its vegetable needs.
I have noticed the change in the contents of the shelves in supermarkets across Qatar over the last year, from the days immediately following the start of the crisis, when we all stood in mutual confusion in the dairy aisle trying to understand what "sut" was (Turkish for milk)..... today being spoiled for a choice of new local produce, proudly displaying their Qatari branding.  Brands such as Baladna, Rawa, Dandy and Ghadeer have rapidly stepped up to expand production after the closure of the Saudi land border cut off all supplies of established brand Almarai.

Baladna in particular has come from a little known farm that began life rearing sheep in 2013, to a huge dairy operation 50kms north of Doha (I passed it on my recent cycling trip) spread across 2.6 million square metres with 20,000 heads of cattle producing milk, yoghurt, cheese and meat.  It is now also expanding into poultry and egg production. 
The operation is open to visitors alongside a park with activities for kids, a small zoo and a restaurant selling the food produced on site.  All these efforts have resulted in a 300 percent rise in the sale of Qatari products in the first quarter of 2018 compared to 2017.
  A professor of economy at St Mary's college of California, Jack Rasmus, has praised Qatar for its swift adjustment to the crisis, believing that the blockade "wont have much effect on the economy" in the long run.  Indeed, in February the ratings agency Fitch said about Qatar "there are signs of broader economic resilience."
The success of the self-sufficiency drive has emboldened Qatar to make an announcement a few days ago that all traders should stop dealing in any products imported from the four countries involved.  Some products from these countries had found their way back to the shelves via third party countries but the ban of these products will now be monitored by the Economy Ministry.
In other areas, its not such good news.  In April, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al-bakr admitted that the airline had made a "substantial" loss over the last financial year due to the crisis, with many of its routes cancelled by the participating countries, and increases on flying times to other destinations due to airspace restrictions.
There have also been numerous claims and counterclaims of airspace violations on all sides, escalating tensions further.  To try to claw back the losses, Qatar Airways are continuing to expand into other routes and partnerships, recently acquiring a stake in Italian airline Meridiana which will shortly become Italy's national carrier.
Politically, there seems to be an impasse, with the Bahraini Foreign Minister forecasting no resolution to the crisis in sight.  Indeed, the much anticipated US-Gulf summit planned for 3rd April was postponed until September this year.  It was also reported that there has been much lobbying behind the scenes by the UAE in particular to convince the US to support the blockade.
This includes a report by the BBC that a businessman with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of defence contracts with the UAE, Elliott Broidy, who also happened to be a Trump fundraiser, tried to persuade the US President to sack Rex Tillerson, the former Secretary of State, because he wasn't supportive of the UAE position.
The World Cup also features heavily in the crisis with the four countries apparently offering to lift the blockade if Qatar gives up its right to host the competition.  But its not just the 2022 World Cup at stake.  In March this year, the Saudi Sports Authority Chairman appeared to threaten to withdraw support for Morocco's bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, if it continued its 'neutral' stance on the crisis, saying "to be in the grey area is no longer acceptable to us."
But perhaps the most troubling development in recent days comes from a threat made by King Salman in a letter to Emanuel Macron relating to Qatar's deal to purchase a Russian-made S-400 missile defence system.  In the letter, obtained by French newspaper 'Le Monde', the Saudi Kings says "the Kingdom would be ready to take all the necessary measures to eliminate this defence system, including military action".
This comes on the back of statements made by Saudi Foreign Minister in April, that without US backing, Qatar would fall within a week.  Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir made the statement following similar comments from President Trump during his Whitehouse meeting with French President Macron, when discussing support from Gulf countries in Syria.  Trump said there were some countries in the area.. "some of which are immensely wealthy, would not be there except for the United States, and to a lesser extent France" and they "wouldn't last a week without US protection".
As Qataris enter the third week of Ramadan, many of them very personally affected by the year long crisis, they have mixed feelings about the events of the last year.  Sadness at the loss of relations with their gulf brothers and sisters but great pride in their country's enduring strength and resilience to not only survive the last 12 months, but to thrive.
The UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs recently stated that "Qatar is arranging celebrations to mark a year of solitude and confusion".  As a resident of Qatar over this last 12 months, that is not a description I recognise.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Qatar Cycling Adventures: Return to Doha

Having spent some relaxation time on the beach beneath a rather lovely palm tree, it was time to leave when the local youth started ripping up the beach with their beach buggies.  I'd cycled that morning from Doha to Al Ruwais - 125km - and I was planning to spend some time in an isolated spot to watch the sunset and stargaze for a while before cycling back to Doha.
So I set off on the road between Al Ruwais and Al Zubara - an old fishing settlement with a Fort which was built in the 1930s to look out for various invaders from the Turks and Omanis to the Bahrainis and the British.
The road ran through the desert and was two-way, single track with no hard shoulder or space for a cyclist, which made me a little nervous, given that drivers here are..... lets just say..... not so careful around cyclists.  I was looking for a place to come off the road and head to the sea to sit alone and contemplate.
Id been riding for maybe 10 minutes when I saw a vehicle driving in the opposite lane towards me...... no problem.  Then from behind him, a Toyota pick up truck appeared and began an overtaking manoeuvre at some crazy speed - must have been over 120 kmph - heading straight for me on my side of the road...... problem.  I had no hard shoulder, no space, no time to think.... so a split second decision caused me to jump off the tarmac and into the dust to avoid him.... with a hair's breadth to spare.
My trusty steed thankfully remained upright and we skidded to a halt a few metres off the road, kicking up the dust.  And I melted into tears and sobs of shock.  I tried to carry on few a few hundred yards but had to stop.  I stood stunned, shaken and indecisive.  What to do now?  The sun was dropping, light fading and it was a Friday night when crazy drivers become insane.... not a great combination on a single track road with no space for me.
I decided to turn around and cycle back to Al Ruwais and from there I would start the ride home on the highway and find somewhere en-route to watch the stars for a while, passing this sign which reads "In the safety of Allah and his care"!!  How appropriate.  Still in shock at the close call, I decided to do the only thing an English girl can do in such a situation....... have a nice cup of tea!!  I stopped at the 'Tea Time' shop on the edge of Al Ruwais where the best Karak tea is served.  It was hot and sweet and perfect for the moment.

Feeling much better and really excited to start the journey back, I set off at 6pm, just as the sun was finally disappearing.  I cycled for an hour along the Shamal road until I reached the turn off for Fuwairit,  a popular beach destination.  Unfortunately, this too was a single track road and by now it was pitch dark so I angled my headlight to try and watch for any potholes.  When the drivers came towards me, their lights blinded me, so I didn't go too far before I settled on a place to stop just off the road.
As I wheeled my bike, I almost walked on what seemed to be a grave... a long narrow pile of stones!  I apologised to the occupant and moved on.  I parked up, made my camp and lit my area with a red light which had a nice glow.  Unfortunately, this attracted rather alot of attention from passing Qataris who drove off the road towards me and offered help.  "Whats the problem? Have you had an accident?  What are you doing here?  Why are you doing this? Do you need anything?  Surely I can give you something.... water.... food...?"
At least half a dozen cars stopped, before I decided to put out my light and keep as still as possible to find the peace I'd sought and lay back and watch the stars.  Sadly, though, attempting to stargaze in Qatar is a fools errand.   Qatar is quite small and what country there is has been either industrialised by Gas and Petroleum plants or is being stitched together by a new network of multi-lane highways, metros, under and overpasses - all with bright lights.
Everywhere in Qatar there is an orange glow from somewhere. Scientists have ranked Qatar as the third worst country in the world to star gaze, after Singapore and Kuwait, with 97% of Qatar's residents living with light pollution. (Doha News)
After a couple of hours and starting to feel cold, I decided to get back on the road, stopping briefly at another Woqod petrol station for a hot coffee and a refill of water bottles and a well needed comfort break.  Getting back on the bike was becoming an agonising experience, as if sitting on razor blades.... but pressing on was the only option with a 6 hour ride ahead.

It felt good to get going again, despite the fact that I'd now been awake for 18 hours.  I calculated that with a 10 minute stop every half an hour to manage my back pain, I was looking at an arrival time of approximately 4am..... perfect to avoid the Friday night crazy driving time between midnight and 3am.

With every 30 minute stretch, I became more and more desperate for the stop, my buttocks screaming in pain and my back and legs tightening, and with each stop, a routine..... check my mileage, location, time, drink laban, eat figs or dates, stretch.

After about 4 hours, the routine had switched to scream as I lifted my buttocks off the saddle, stretch,  pray, drink and wonder if I could make it home.  I was checking in with a friend who stayed awake in case I got into trouble but I was determined not to give up, whatever the pain.

During one stop, the Police pulled up beside me....."mishkela?".... meaning "problem?"....  "La.... kol tamam" I replied.... "No.....everything is OK".  They were very reassuring and stuck around until they saw that I could ride safely and get on my way...... at least that's how I interpreted it.  The Police were not the only ones to stop.... a guy in a big red pick up pulled over in front of me.... unfortunately he clearly wanted to chat which was absolutely the last thing on my mind at 2.30am, feeling nauseous and my buttocks in shreds.  He'd seen me cycling in the morning at around 6am and couldn't believe I was still on the road!  He offered to put my bike in the back of his truck and give me a lift.  As tempting as it was.......
Passing Doha Festival City Mall and IKEA was a major milestone and a sign that I was close to home.... about an hour or so away.  At this point I decided that stopping was no longer an option and I would push for home, negotiating multilayer roundabouts, major junctions and scary overpasses which, during normal daytime hours, are terrifying to negotiate by car, let alone on a bike!!  Thankfully the roads were at last relatively quiet and I made my final push.
As I got closer to my hotel, I realised that I needed a plan for how to stop,  prise my body from the saddle and dismount without screaming in front of the porter.  So a few hundred yards away, I slowly and gently rose onto my feet and lifted my bottom off the razor blades that had become my saddle, wincing quietly as I did so.   I attempted a smile but the look of horror on his face as I limped stiffly towards the door, looking shell-shocked said it all.  "Are you OK madam?"...... "Yes I'm fine.... I've just cycled from Al Ruwais"..... He paused and said casually..."that's quite a long way".....!!

As I walked into the lobby, I glanced at my watch and realised that I had made it back exactly 24 hours after leaving, after a round trip of 276kms.  Battered and bruised but just about in one piece.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Qatar Cycling Adventures: Doha to AlRuwais

Since bringing my bike to Qatar 3.5 years ago, I've had an ambition to one day cycle all the way to the Northern tip of the country, at Al Ruwais.  18 months ago, I got just over half way when I made a trip to Al Khor on the East Coast and spent the night before Eid Al Adha 2016 under the stars. 

You would think the endless sunshine in Qatar would make it perfect for long distance cycling.  However, the searing heat from May to September, the freezing desert nights during winter and the crazy winds that whip up sudden sand and dust storms at a moment's notice all mean that you need to choose your window of opportunity carefully.

After a few attempts scuppered by some freakish thunder storms, heavy rain and strong winds and a dust storm thrown in, the weekend of 20th April looked perfect for me to try again.  Everything was prepared, my paniers packed, my chain oiled and I was up at 3.30am.

Had some strong coffee and porridge (the one time I forgive myself for eating carbs is when I'm cycling), I paused to reflect on whether I really wanted to do this, and set off nervously into the last remnants of darkness, at exactly 4.30am.

The weather was perfect, around 21 degrees and a light breeze and not much traffic to contend with at this stage.  

I cycled along the Doha Corniche, past the silky calm waters of the bay, looking across to the city, and then cut behind the Emiri Diwan (Qatar's ceremonial state building) to ride along the "red road'... tarmacked about a year ago to replicate the royal road around Buckingham Palace!  

It was wet from its nightly clean, so without mud guards I got a free shower to start the morning!  I passed the Grand Mosque not long before sunrise, the end of Fajr, the dawn prayer.  

I decided to avoid the Doha Expressway for as long as possible by taking Arab League Street until I reached Doha Festival City Mall where I would cut across to the Expressway and join the Shamal (North) Road.  This would carry me all the way to the very northern tip of Qatar.  So no map required.
I was feeling good and I was making great progress - averaging around 20kmph and marking my target kms every 30 mins.  I kept this up for approximately 4 hours, despite my desperate need for a bathroom break.  

Qatar is undergoing a total overhaul of its infrastructure, including its roads, and several times I saw signs for "Services 1km" but there were no services (I guess they put the signs up first and build the services later?), and believe me when I say there is nowhere to hide to take a pee n the desert!!  And then the back pain started to creep in so I had to make one or two stops to stretch and get some relief.

Finally at 80km, I saw a Woqod petrol station.  Relief at last!........I took a few minutes to stretch my legs, buy some more water and a fruit juice (the one time I forgive myself for drinking fruit juice is when I'm cycling).  It was 8.45am when I stopped - Id taken 4 hours 15 mins to travel 80km and I had around 45km to go - maybe another 2.5 hrs.  So I would reach Al Ruwais at maybe 11.30.  Knowing the sun would get quite severe, I applied suntan lotion to my arms and face and off I went again. 

The Shamal Road is a 3 lane highway running from Doha all the way up through the desert to the Northern tip of the country.  I was lucky to have a hard shoulder to cycle along because the speed of many of the drivers here is terrifying.  

The big trucks are directed to drive only in the "slow" lane beside me, but they too drive at reckless speeds.  Initially quite terrifying, this was something which in fact I learned to love, because as they rushed past, I would momentarily get sucked along by their draft and it was a wonderful relief.

However, there was an occasional reminder that these speeds can lead to a loss of control with grave consequences.  I saw several wrecks and a few abandoned vehicles along the way.

I felt better for the stop but the wind had now increased, and my progress was slower, and within 30 minutes the back pain had reappeared with a vengeance.  I was experiencing back spasms which sent an electrical wave of pain through my whole body,  a few times so bad that I was forced to stop peddling and free wheel for a few seconds.  

I was terrified that at any time, I'd seize up completely and have to abandon the ride.  So I stopped every 20 minutes to stretch and loosen up, under the shade of the nearest bridge, as the temperatures were really rising now to around 36C.  I felt the risk of serious injury (having two herniated discs in my spine already, I know the signs) but I couldn't give up.  I was close to my destination and although it wouldn't be pretty, I would finish, come what may.

A few kilometres on, I started seeing signs of civilisation.  It must be Al Ruwais.... It wasn't.  It was Shamal City.  I passed a strange building in the style of a Fortress but which is actually a sports stadium!  Then a few kilometres and roundabouts later, Al Ruwais!   Finally.  I needed to get inside an air-conditioned building and spend some time there cooling off.  Id seen a shopping centre on the map so I imagined it would be a small mall where I could sit for a while and have coffee.  

However, it was only a supermarket with no cafe.  I bought some provisions for later and cycled around the town looking for someone to go inside.  Unfortunately I'd arrived at around 1230pm, which was Friday noon prayer time, when cafes are usually closed.  So instead I headed for Abu Dhalouf Park, where I was sure I could find some shade.  

As I cycled towards the park, I passed half a dozen young boys around the age of 10 on beach buggies, driving recklessly on and off pavements and paying little attention to the traffic.  They looked like they'd just come from the mosque, dressed smartly in their mini thobes.

I finally found the park around 1pm.  Beside it was one of the most beautiful mosques Ive seen in Qatar.  Once inside the park, it was very busy with families and children.  

As I was pushing my bike around to find a quiet spot, a guard approached me and told me "no bikes allowed"... I asked him how to get down to the beach and eventually found the way.  I found a big palm tree with lots of shade and set out my little camp to relax for a while.

It was a lovely spot looking out to the sea, a light breeze and the background sounds of children playing, and a group of Indian guys playing volleyball.  After 125km and 7.5 hours in the saddle, finally I had a place to relax, recharge my batteries and rest my back.......  

......Until the Qatari kids on their beach buggies arrived to tear up the beach, racing back and forth and driving straight through the volleyball net and ripping it out of the ground.  They continued to terrorise the family beach goers and create noise and chaos so I decided to leave and find somewhere to watch the sun go down and see the stars come out.....

to be continued.......