Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Standing on a bridge

I've been in Qatar now for over 18 months and I find it hard to describe the impact this change has had on my life.  Being the end of the year and the end of another contract without the certainty of another yet again, I'm in reflective mood.  Those who know me  know all too well that I have sought to understand and embrace Arabic culture rather than continue my English life abroad.  My feeling being that a life seeking knowledge and cultural understanding is all the richer for it.  So I shrugged off my British reserve and resistance and opened my mind and my heart.

To quote from Muhammad Asad's extraordinary work 'The Road to Mecca', "when water lies motionless in a pool it becomes stale and muddy, but when it moves and flows, it becomes clear".  So too the heart and soul and indeed the mind of man.

So…. I have Arabic friends, I frequent the souq as my relaxation space of choice, I listen and dance to Arabic music, occasionally smoke shisha, drink karak or Moroccan mint tea rather than drink alcohol, I observe Ramadan, Ive travelled to Yemen, wear an abaya, wear a ghutra every weekend in the souq, share dinner with my friends, eat lambs livers in Yemeni restaurants with my hands, take an interest in the politics of the region and have philosophical debates with Muslim friends on the interpretation of the Quran and, of course, I'm learning Arabic.

But the change is not merely a physical one, of doing different things or superficially making some sort of token gesture to local culture.  Rather it is as if I'm absorbing the Arabian spirit through my senses.  This is not a conscious study (apart from the language of course).  This is an emotional and spiritual transformation and reaction to my new environment which started with the sounds of the call to prayer, a sound which millions before have heard, unchanged throughout the 1400 years since the birth of Islam. "Allāhu akbar. Allāhu akbar. Ash-hadu an-lā ilāha illā allāh." (God is the greatest, God is the greatest. I bear witness there is no God but Allah).  I'm lucky to be living in the older side of town (that's my hotel in the middle of the photo), surrounded by mosques  which 5 times a day broadcast the call.  One by one they join the chorus, the male vocals of the muezzin callers rolling across the city like a gentle wave.

It continued with the smells of the souq, from the aromatic spices of every kind to the heady aromas of shisha and oud. Then the scenes of young Arab men, dressed in perfectly pressed white thobes and flowing ghutras, dancing and laughing together, affectionate with one another.  The mass gatherings on Thursday and Friday nights to watch, listen and dance to the fabulous rhythms of the hand drums and tablas and sing along to the visiting vocalists from Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Yemen.

The lack of tension and the lightness of atmosphere, everyone revelling in the joy of each others company.  A lightness that perhaps comes from a feeling that there is something much bigger and more powerful than all this.   For so many in this region, there is a closer and more present relationship between life and death  A colleague at Al Jazeera once stated that Qatar has no soul.  Well my experience tells a different story. Qatar does have soul ….. for those willing to find it.

But there is a danger when one opens oneself to such fundamental change.  Now I find myself standing on the middle of a bridge between two worlds, neither at one end
or the other.  I can no longer see the beginning from where I came, nor can I see where I am headed.  Both are shrouded in mist.  Do I go back or continue forward?  This is not an easy place to be and some days I feel drawn to one end and then the other, with both ends pulling at me with an invisible force.  Of course one end offers the excitement of the unknown, the other offers the comfort of the familiar.

But this emotional push and pull is not for the faint hearted.  For now I must remain on the bridge, waiting for the mist to clear a little on the path ahead before I can move.  So I continue to quench my thirst for knowledge.  I hope to take a trip in the Jordanian desert, to further my knowledge of Islam and the life of the Prophet (may peace be upon him), and of course to improve my Arabic language… inshallah!!

I'm sure the mist will clear at some point….. but at which end of the bridge?

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

An English girl in Yemen pt 3 - tanks and guns

My blogs about my trip to Yemen have so far sought to describe the beauty, the warmth and the friendship of the place which many refer to as the cradle of civilisation.  Indeed many in the Middle East trace their ancestry back to the country which is home to the most welcoming and hospitable of any people in the world.

But as Ive hinted, there is a darker side to Yemen and in recent weeks, the security situation has deteriorated still further and it would now be even more dangerous for a westerner to travel there, particularly through Sanaa, which in September, was taken by the Houthis - a Shia group which during the summer led protests against rising fuel prices and a lack of representation in the Yemeni government.  Clashes continue between the Houthis, the Government and Sunni Al Qaeda militants who are fighting back against the Houthis takeover.

So far the trouble has been focused around Sanaa and the North but it is moving towards the south, with the capture of Al Bayda province, a Sunni stronghold,  the Red Sea port of Hodeidah and Shia-populated Dhamar province.  However, Al-Herak Al-Janoubi (The Southern Movement), whose flag is everywhere in Aden,  see this destabilisation as an opportunity to re-energise their call for secession for the South and they have given a deadline of 30 November for any Northern Yemeni security and military forces to leave the South of the country.

Almost all of the Yemenis I know come from a rural part of South Yemen called Yafea.  This youtube video will give you a small insight into the music, culture, people and landscape of this fascinating part of the world. If you watch it you will see photos of people from Yafea past and present, illustrating how important guns are to their culture, from a very young age.  So it was no surprise when one night in Aden we heard very loud gunfire in the street outside.  The separatist movement often organise demonstrations, marches and protests about the ongoing political situation and their struggle for independence.  And there was something planned for the Saturday I was there.  Yazid would normally take part but on this occasion, he wanted to keep us out of danger.

That being said, we still wanted to go out, but would avoid the late afternoon/evening when things would get busy and potentially dangerous.  We went for a drive and all seemed quite, albeit a little tense and fewer people were on the streets than usual.  We drove to the amazing Aden Water Tanks, otherwise known as the Cisterns of Tawila, located in the oldest part of Aden, called Crater.  They are exactly as the name suggests - a series of tanks designed to collect rain water and also stop the city flooding.  There were originally 53 but were reduced to 13 during renovations partly by the British in 19th Century.   The combined capacity is an incredible 19 million gallons.


As the plaque at the tanks states, there is surprisingly little information about their original construction but they were thought to have been started more than 1500 years ago, in pre-Islamic times by the Himyarites who were known to have used water tanks in other areas.  And the tanks were certainly mentioned in manuscripts dated 7th Century A.D.  The tanks were hewn from the volcanic rocks and lined with a natural cement made from volcanic ash which gave the tanks an impermeability to retain water for lengthy periods.

It was very hot and we hadn't realised that the time was getting on and we
needed to go to Aden Mall to sort out Yazid's iPhone…. or more accurately, return the fake iPhone he'd been sold the day before to try and get his money back!!  When we arrived at Aden Mall there were only one or two cars in the entire car park and most of the entrances to the Mall were closed.  We managed to get inside and there was only a handful of people who were outnumbered by the police presence - most of whom were hanging around the coffee shop.  Many of the shops had already closed for the day, anticipating potential trouble ahead.

We headed to see if the phone shop was open and found the owner sitting in the corner relaxing, chewing ghat and when Yazid told him about the phone and asked for his money back, the guy just gave a half smile, told Yazid it was indeed a genuine iPhone and continued with his ghat.  Yazid looked at me for support and I was getting angrier by the second.  I held up my iPhone…."This is an iPhone….. and this is not an iPhone" putting them side by side on the counter and making him look at the difference.  He shrugged and wasn't too interested.  My voice was getting louder and more insistent and Yazid looked nervous and seemed ready to accept he'd lost his money, which the guy said he no longer had!  I think he was concerned about the situation escalating so we had no choice but to walk away.  Its not as if you can go to the police or the trading standards!!!

We headed to the coffee shop and Ahmed went to buy us coffee as he always did.  I saw the police talk to him and it was clear from their body language that the situation wasn't good.  Ahmed came back to us and said the police had advised us to leave but yazid wanted to stay a bit longer as we'd only just sat down.  At which point we heard gunshots outside and we all realised that if we didn't leave immediately, it may be too late!  So we made a dash for the car.  We didn't see any signs of anything… all appeared calm but Ahmed drove at speed in the direction of home, with a  few choice phrases sent in Yazid's direction!!

He wasn't at all concerned... He turned up the stereo and started singing along with total abandon.   I guess when you live in a state of perpetual danger, you tend to live each day as if it could be the last.  Feeling rather the same, I joined in!!!

Friday, 12 September 2014

An English girl in Yemen

……so there I am, an English girl in Yemen.  As the taxi drives us from the airport, I can see that every woman is dressed in the abaya and full veil….. I ask Yazid if I need to buy a veil.  He reassures me it will be fine.  There are areas where I will need to be careful but in busy places such as the mall and tourist spots, I should be OK.  I'm pictured here wearing the abaya and hijab on one of our trips out.  I would always wear the abaya in the car and then when Yazid and his friend felt it was safe, I could remove it and wear western clothes in certain areas.

As we drive through the streets, I can see the neglect and the poverty.  Rubbish piling up along the roads, buildings fading with only memories of the long forgotten good times, when Aden was a thriving tourist destination.  When the beaches were packed with holiday makers from around the world, there for the guaranteed sunshine and warm waters of the Gulf of Aden.

The driving didn't  seem to follow any particular rules and there were checkpoints everywhere….  to check for suspect vehicles or individuals in an attempt to control the security situation.
 We occasionally had bomb detection too.... Where the security would pass a mirror under the car and give us a good look!  I kept a pretty low profile anyway but there were moments when yazid told me to really sit back or even hide.  I think he was just being cautious and felt a big responsibility to keep me safe.
Unfortunately, it would be too dangerous for Yazid and his friend to drive me into the countryside or to Sanaa or to Hadramout to see some of the historic sights. It is highly risky to carry westerners in your car with the ever present danger of kidnap from tribal factions or Al Qaeda.  

So instead we stuck  to Aden and our daily routine was for Yazid to go out and get us some food from the local restaurant, eat at home and then go out in the afternoon.  The food was amazing.    The favourite Yemeni speciality is Mandi - a rice dish with chicken or lamb or occasionally fish…. and it comes with a broth and various spicy sauces and a salad.   The meat is cooked in a tandoor and is truly delicious.  The name Mandi stems from the arabic word for dew, referring to the texture of the meat, which was unbelievably tender.  I have certainly never tasted lamb that good in my entire life.  And every part of the animal was there…. nothing is wasted.

For desert we had Masoob a few times - the most incredible mash up of banana, bread, honey, raisins and cream.  Simply divine and wonderfully rich - but if you want to have it as desert….. leave space!!!   Its extremely filling.

We would eat together from the same large plate, as is the norm, and we ate with our hands because, as Yazid told me….. "Allah gave us hands to eat with".  After dropping most of the rice in my lap with the first few attempts, I soon got the hang of it….. well I thought so.  Im not sure my Yemeni friends were quite so convinced, but they were very gracious in their praise of my efforts!

Yemenis eat as if they haven't eaten for a month..... Hoovering everything up very quickly, fistfuls of rice, ripping the meat apart with enthusiasm and wasting no time in conversation.  As I sat with Yazid and his friend one day having lunch exclaiming... "Shway shway!" … .. "Slowly!! "…. I told them how in Europe, especially Italy, France and Spain, people will sit for 3-4 hours over a meal... Drink wine, eat slowly, tell stories, have conversation.    

They found this quite hilarious because although they enjoy their food and its really good, their pleasure is in what comes later.... qat.  This is what they spend hours doing as a social activity with friends.  Eating is a necessary thing to be done and then you can relax and enjoy chewing qat and conversation.

However there was no qat on this occasion and we didn't have any throughout my trip.  Mainly because I had already registered my objection to it so Yazid made sure there wasn't  any around.  However, I now regret this a little.  My maxim has been not to reject any new experience and this would have been an interesting one.  I wish I'd tried it just once.

So once we had finished our lunch, I would dress in the abaya and hijab over my clothes and after a quick check, we'd leave the house and get into the car.  This particular occasion we were going to the beach and the harbour.  Travelling back through all the checkpoints and towards the coast.  As I mentioned already, this was once a thriving tourist destination, with packed beaches and people coming from around the world to witness Yemen's unique culture, architecture and beautiful waters of the Gulf of Aden.

Now those same beaches are deserted of western tourists , following a series of attacks on westerners, tourist groups being targeted, several kidnappings, and the media coverage of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula), which is based in Yemen.  

I took the photo above on the day we visited Gold Maher Beach, one of the most famous beaches in Aden.  With the exception of one or two families, it was deserted.   It was beautiful and I would have loved to have taken a dip.  

However, under the now strict adherence to an austere and ultra conservative interpretation of Islam similar to that of Saudi Arabia, all women must be completely covered and fully veiled at all times in public.  So women can swim in the sea, and there are full body swim suits for women to enable them to do so safely.   But not being prepared with such attire and not wanting to take any unnecessary risks or draw any attention,  I wore my abaya and hijab and just took a walk for a while and took some photos.  It was a beautiful day - very warm but breezy so we decided to drive a little further along the coast to another beach, which was much busier.

The locals and other tourists from the region still frequent these fabulous coastal beauty spots.  There were quite a few people swimming and families relaxing and playing on this beach.  The atmosphere was wonderful, really friendly, very relaxed and happy and there were little shops selling drinks, ice creams etc    I was really enjoying myself, just taking it all in, breathing the fresh sea air, watching the families having fun……. 

….. when suddenly I noticed Yazid walking up to a guy holding a horse!…… seconds later, he was hopping on and riding off down the beach!!!    This is what I love about Yemenis - they don't think about, they don't talk about it, they just do it.  If they want to do something , they do it, whatever the consequences…… I guess you could say thats what gets people into trouble but there is something to be said for it ……. Sometimes in Britain, we analyse things so much before we do anything, that we hold ourselves back from really living.  

I guess if you know that your life is in danger on a daily basis, you just get on and do things that you want to do.  I want to ride that horse, so Ill talk to the guy and thats it…. done!  Yazid told me later that he used to ride horses with his grandfather on that beach so the temptation was irresistible.  

On the drive back, we continued along the coast, past small harbours, beaches, inlets and rocky outcrops and I got a real sense of just how beautiful South Arabia (as it was once known) truly is.

……. to be continued……..

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The end of my second Ramadan!

I can't quite believe this is my second Ramadan in Qatar!  Where did the time go?  Ramadan is now nearly at an end and Eid is just around the corner.  I entered Ramadan this year with a clearer idea about what it really means and why it is such a special time for those of the Muslim faith.  As you know, it is a time of fasting between sunrise and sunset - not just food and water but also smoking and resisting all other desires, if you know what I mean.

In Qatar, everything is closed pretty much all day, until around 5pm when things start to open up and food will not be served until after prayers at sunset.  The roads are deserted and tumble weed blows down the street.  Then in the evening, its chaos.  Everyone is out, the roads are jammed, the malls are humming and the restaurants packed with families coming out for Iftar.  Families with the smallest children stay out until the early hours enjoying the atmosphere.

During Ramadan, I had to take my recycling to the park along the Corniche as usual, but the temperatures had soared and it was too hot both in the morning and the evening, so I decided that as I was getting up at 3am to have my breakfast anyway, as is the ritual, I would take it then!!  As I ventured out, I saw hundreds of people on the streets, mainly men walking to the Mosque for dawn prayers.

The atmosphere was amazing and the temperature certainly bearable enough for my 5 km walk to the park.  As I got close to the park, I could see that whole families were out having their Suhoor (pre-dawn meal) picnic - little children, as young as 3 years old, were playing and enjoying the Ramadan routine.  It was a wonderful experience to see it and to feel the touch of coolness in the air at that time of day.  As I walked back, the sun began to rise as the fishermen waited for their first catch, and I could already feel the heat building!!

Ramadan is a time of increased modesty in behaviour and attire and should be a time when we are at peace with each other.  It is a time for reflection and consideration of others, particularly those who are less fortunate.  The fasting helps to remind us how lucky we are to be able to eat whenever we want and provides us with the opportunity to practice self discipline and selflessness and focus more on faith and spiritual fulfilment……

…..Then I went to Carrefour, the hypermarket in the City Centre Mall.  One would expect the supermarkets to be quiet as people are surely eating less, buying less and indulging less……. errrr not exactly.  I was mystified to see the fruit and vegetable areas piled higher than ever, shelves bulging with dates, nuts, turkish delight, and a dedicated Ramadan display of sweet arabic treats such as baklava etc.

It really reminded me of December in the UK, when the shops all out-do each other in the latest line of overindulgence and we all talk about how we've lost the real meaning of Christmas!  Its funny  - whether we're Christians or Muslims, whether we're in London or Doha, we can't help being human with all our inconsistencies, frailties and contradictions.

But, as with Christmas, there is a another way to look at it.  What, at first glance, may appear to be pure gluttony, could, as one of my muslim friends explained, be families buying extra food to cater for relations and friends coming over for Iftar.  Iftar is the meal to break the fast at sunset.  It is a very sociable time, a time for thinking about loved ones, families, friends and neighbours.

A time to share, cook for them, be generous, kind and loving with them.  And last year I did indeed witness this personally, being invited to Iftar by two of my colleagues to their family homes.

And these are indeed impressive spreads, and several hours are spent in preparation.  Plenty of traditional regional dishes and home cooked specialities handed down through the generations.  Arab people are truly the warmest, most generous and hospitable of any culture I've ever experienced.

Eid al-Fitr, which means the 'Feast of Breaking the Fast', marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan and the start of the month of Shawwal (the tenth month of the Islamic calendar), with the first sighting of the new crescent moon.  This year it is estimated to be 28th July and is officially announced by Saudi Arabia.  In religious terms, it is one day but the holidays usually last 2 or 3 days and in Qatar even longer.  This year, public bodies are giving staff 5 days holiday.

There are two such festivals in the Muslim calendar.  The other is Eid al-Adha, falling around October time this year.  This is the 'Feast of the Sacrifice' and honours Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his first born son to God, before God intervened to provide him with a lamb to sacrifice instead.  It is another 4 or 5 days public holiday in the Islamic world.

And what does Eid al-Fitr have in store this year?  Well, usually there are plenty of activities and celebrations at various locations, including of course at my beloved Souq Waqif.  However, with such tragic events taking place in Gaza at this time, a decision has been taken to cancel all musical events in the Souq as a mark of respect for those killed, injured and caught up in the violence.  Doha News  As I said to a friend on Facebook - I'll miss the music but I fully appreciate and support the gesture.

But many Qataris and expats will use the time to get away for a while.  Many people take vacation during these times and work slows down, replaced by a time for enjoyment, leisure, family, and celebration.  Not a bad idea really!!

I wonder if I'll be here for Ramadan number three!....... I very much hope so!!!!


Saturday, 21 June 2014

Is Aden your final destination?

At the end of April, having been in Qatar for more than a year,  I decided that I needed to step up the adventure and experience quotient and look further afield for a bit of excitement.  Where did I choose?  

Ever since I met my friends in Souq Waqif, here in Doha, and having been moved by their charm, their warmth, their sincerity, their joy of life, not to mention their excellent dance moves of course!!…. I have wanted to go to Yemen.  When one of my closest friends got stuck in Yemen at the end of last year just as the new Qatari Amir changed the visa rules so that Yemenis could no longer visit Doha, I made up my mind.  I would visit Yemen somehow, despite all the warnings, dangers and difficulties securing a visa.

I read that, as a British passport holder, the only way for me to visit would be to book with a tour company and be accompanied by a guide at all times.  OK for a tourist visit, to see the sights, such as the incredible Haid Al-Jazil in Wadi Doan, Hadramout (pictured), but I wanted to see my friend.  It seemed travelling to Yemen independently was not possible and I couldn't see a way around it.   But as is often the case, it turned out to be much simpler than I expected…… in fact, it all happened very suddenly and took me by surprise.  I went from believing I could never go, to having the visa in my passport within one week!

I won't go into detail about it here, as it would be too long for a blog (maybe one for the book!!)… but suffice to say that a nice chat with the Yemeni Ambassador over a cup of sweet tea did the trick.  He was also kind enough to give me details of a very senior security official in Aden airport, who had, lets just say very lofty connections.

Thankfully, I never needed to use them but it was reassuring…… although you never know whether carrying such contacts is a good or bad thing sometimes!!!

It struck me as a fabulous and very old fashioned way of doing business, which I think we have lost to a great extent in Europe, binding ourselves up instead in so much red tape and cotton wool, that the only response we get is "computer says no"!!  There were no computers in the Yemeni Embassy! ;-)  Actually there weren't many people either….. (Yemen isn't the holiday hotspot it once was!!)…… which is why I was able to spend a little longer over my tea!!

I knew that Yemen was along similar lines to Saudi Arabia in terms of Muslim conservatism and I would need to pay particular attention to my attire.  I knew about the dangers to westerners of kidnappings by Al Qaeda and tribal factions, so I went with one of my dear friends, Mohammed, to buy an abaya and hijab.  I was very glad I had when I read that two women had been shot and killed in Aden the week before for not wearing the abaya.

I realised then quite the responsibility I was placing on the shoulders of a young Yemeni, whose time-keeping and reliability had not been award winning when I knew him in Doha!   I wondered what would happen if I arrived in Aden and he was nowhere to be seen!  I flew with Yemenia Airways, who are the only carrier flying directly from Doha to Aden, once a week.

My nerves were not calmed when I arrived at the airport and immediately started getting clues to the somewhat unusual nature of my choice of destination.  I was asked for my mobile number by the check in desk, and every time I showed my boarding pass to purchase something, a quizzical look would come over the assistant and they'd ask "is Aden your final destination?"… almost seemed as if they were about to say…. "don't do it!"  But soon I received a message from Yazid to say he was already waiting for me at Aden airport, which made me feel a whole lot better!!

In typical Yemenia Airways style, the flight was delayed…. and when I sat at the gate with the rest of the passengers….. (all 20 of them!) there was not one single westerner among them.  I could tell the guys were Yemeni because of the style of headdress they wore and every single woman, without exception, wore the abaya and niqab (full veil).  So my confidence in having my abaya and hijab packed safely in my luggage, quickly evaporated when I realised I hadn't bought the full veil.

There I was in smart-casuals with all eyes upon me.  But they were not eyes of suspicion or disapproval.  No, these were friendly eyes and I felt at home.  Because of my familiarity with my friends in the souq, and my knowledge of Yemenis as warm and welcoming, i didn't feel in any way out of place.  When we boarded the bus, the ladies congregated at one end and the men at the other….. I found myself standing amongst the guys and no one seemed to mind.  As a western woman, Im in a very lucky and privileged position of being able to mix with both sexes.  Some of the ladies talked to me and asked me about my trip.  The whole flight felt like a family outing!!

And there was plenty of space!!……so sad that such a beautiful, interesting and unique place in the world is ravaged by tribal conflict, poverty (particularly in the South), a significant Al Qaeda presence and regular drone strikes by the USA, not to mention the constant and lengthy power cuts due to the bombing of gas and oil pipelines.   All of this has, quite naturally, deterred tourists from travelling there and of course it is now almost impossible to get a visa anyway, even if one was prepared to take the risk.

The flight was only an hour and a half and given the poverty in the country, one could forgive this being what I could only describe as a 'no frills' airline.  It was 6 months since I had seen Yazid, in early November last year and I was excited to see him and see some of this beautiful part of the world, so forgotten…..

Flying into Aden airport was the strangest arrival at any airport Ive ever experienced.  I have never flown into an airport which doesn't have any other planes on the ground at all.  Not one.  Just one small single story building which looked like a set from a 1960s American cop show….. all pastels and palm trees.  We landed very quickly and taxid to the terminal in short order where we were disembarked onto a bus which drove us all of 100 meters to the terminal door….. it was rather funny.  I could have walked it quicker I think!…..

During the 30 second bus journey, I caught sight of someone standing on the tarmac … was Yazid!   I recognised him immediately.  All the concern about what I'd say to security, what would they ask me etc vanished.   No problems with security here!  It seems his father is an important and well connected tribal Sheikh in South Yemen.  He took me immediately by the hand, took my passport from me, handed it to security and whisked me through passport control without anyone speaking to me at all!!  First class service.  We waited in the waiting area for 5 minutes, catching up with my patchy Arabic and his even patchier English, and there came security with my passport all stamped and ready to go…… !!!

And that was the easiest arrival to any airport I have ever experienced, I just never expected it to be in Yemen!!

…….to be continued…..!!

Monday, 31 March 2014

A year in Doha and the temperatures are creeping up again!

Unbelievable but true - it was a year ago exactly that I arrived in Qatar!!  And what a year its been!!  New friends, new language, new culture, new experiences, and new job of course!  And Ive had to get used to the sun shining almost every day!  What a hardship!  But for a bad weather junkie, I initially missed the rain a great deal.  i love storms, wind , torrential downpours, hail, snow, you name it!!

Listening to the rain on my window on a Sunday morning was one of my great pleasures in life!  I wondered how I would cope without it.  But now I am used to the relative predictability of the sunshine and the ease with which I can do things and go about my business without thinking…. "what will the weather do today?".    I can pop out to the Corniche or the Souq for a walk, go for a run or go shopping  and I don't need to carry my 'just in case' umbrella!!

Strangely enough though, this year has been the wettest people here can remember.  There have been occasional days when it has rained all day and night!!  Now that is unheard of here.  So much so, that they do not have drains here because, as a rule, they don't need them.  That does have its downsides when you get a deluge, because the place floods immediately, as you can see in this photo taken beside my hotel!

Just last week we had alot of rain. Water was pouring through the ceiling in the Arabic Channel and even our project portacabin appears to be sinking at one end now because the ground has shifted due to the amount of water.  My taxi ride into work really did feel like a gloomy London morning in November and it was funny listening to my Arabic colleagues complaining of not being able to see to drive because of the spray on the roads!!  

And I finally did fall asleep to the sound of rain on my window for the first time here in a year!  The winter was longer and cooler than I had expected and lasted from November right through to March - almost 5 months.  But the temperatures started to creep up a little a month ago and then suddenly on one day, it was as if someone had switched the oven back on!  A little bit like in the UK when we switch from summer to autumn but in reverse!  You always get that one day when everything changes!

Even the guys are now wearing their summer thobes again - all white, and I can go out without a jacket and scarf!  I was shocked at how cold it got during December and January, particularly in the evenings…… OK, about 10 degrees (its all relative!!).  When I was out with the guys having coffee or shisha outside (my dear friend Nasser pictured here), we were shivering!!  They were wearing long sleeved and long legged thermal underwear under their thobes!…. but thankfully remained in their sandals and suffered the cold, rather than suffer the indignity of the shoes and socks with thobe combination!  That is not a good look in anyone's look-book !  

The weather has been pretty crazy, particularly recently, and there have been some amazing thunder storms.  Just last week, we had a couple of crackers and standing on my balcony, I witnessed lightning landing on the roof of a house just below me.  It exploded like a fire ball with an incredible sound!  It was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen!

Sadly I didn't catch that particular moment on camera - didn't even see it coming,  it was a total shock and, I must admit, made me back away rather rapidly into my room!!

However, just a couple of nights ago, we had another spectacular storm and I caught the image above plus the following images…… they show the view from the balcony before and then during one lightning strike.

The view went from this………

….to this………..!!!!!

The temperatures over the last few days have been creeping up and up - into the low to mid 30s again…..and it will keep going higher into the 40s in July and August before it cools down again in October.  At least when Im running around Al Jazeera (pictured) in the sticky summer heat,  I can look forward to the chilly winter evenings to come!!

And as the heat rises again, I feel the memories of my first days and weeks here coming back to me when I fell under the spell of this fascinatingly complex, diverse and exciting country.  I can only hope that I get the chance for another year of adventure but then uncertainty is a big part of life here - even the weather is now becoming unpredictable!….so who knows?