Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Being Bedouin

Qatari nationals make up around 12% of the 2.3 million population of Qatar, at around only 278,000. Much of the population are or originate from Bedouin tribes.   The term Bedouin translates to 'desert dweller' and in Qatar they remained living in desert dwellings until around 50 years ago when they started to move into urban dwellings in what is now Doha city and vicinity.

There are few if any Bedouin who live in the desert now, but families continue to practice traditions, usually on weekends, spending time in desert camps, sitting around a fire, cooking traditional dishes and sleeping under the stars.  

I have the incredible fortune to have Bedouin friends from both Yemen and Qatar and learning about their culture and traditions has been a fascinating discovery.  I was lucky enough to spend some time with them in the desert one recent weekend when I was invited along to their private camp by the sea in the very far North of Qatar, 90 minutes drive from Doha.

Spending time, albeit only a brief encounter, gave me a joyful but calming education in how to approach life and I'm always learning from my Bedouin friends.  It was perhaps the closest one can come to touching their traditions and imagining what life was like in this region a mere 50 years ago.  As one of my dear friends told me, his family only moved out of desert dwellings in the late 1960s/70s.

There is something special about the quiet in the desert that is hard to find elsewhere.  It even lacks the rustle of vegetation you find in the English countryside.  There is a naturally contemplative atmosphere which instantly calms the blood and sheds the troubles of life.  It is now that I understand the Bedouin approach to life of living in the present.

New challenges will come with dawn but right now we are comfortable, safe, we have fire, we have food and as the sun sets and the sky darkens, we draw comfort from the familiar pattern of tiny lights above us, the intensity and brightness increasing with every passing minute.  As I said to my friend "what more do we need?"

I sat quietly and watched as he and his friend prepared the evenings refreshments including a traditional drink called 'zanjabeel' (Arabic for ginger), made from boiled milk and ginger.  The drink dates back to the time of the Prophet (may peace be upon him) and beyond.  " And they will be given to drink there of a cup mixed with zanjabil" (Qur'an, 76:17) 

The milk and grated ginger are boiled in a small kettle for around 30 minutes or so and then a significant quantity of sugar is added.  Sadly on this occasion, it curdled but the whey was pretty delicious and I could imagine how tasty it would have been if all had gone well.  

The kebabs of chicken and beef were marinated in the most incredible herbs…. one which I have seen in the souq but not tried myself is 'black lemon'.  It is in fact dried lime and gives an incredible effect when added to meat, the acidic flavour cutting through and enhancing the beef… utterly delicious.  The fire was stoked after the meal and kept us warm as the temperature began to drop.  

Quiet jovial conversation in Arabic ensued, sharing stories through the crackle of the fire.  I listened and tried to understand.  My Arabic still not quite good enough to join in to any great extent, but I was able to share a few words and phrases and as I learn more, a new world will open up to me even further!

On this occasion, I didn't spend all night beneath the stars but my brief encounter with Qatar's North shore,  the comfort of quiet conversation by a warming fire, the feeling of calm that comes with the feeling of space and the acknowledgement of ones unimportance under a big sky of stars gave me a hunger for more.  I think a longer trip to the desert beckons when I get the chance!!

Friday, 23 January 2015

The winter colours of the souq

The beginning of another year in Qatar and a cool (sometimes cold!) breeze descends on the souq.  I love this time of year. .... With the change in temperature so a change of colours......white thobes and ghutras turn to blue, brown, black, even red (as sported by my friend Nasser). 

Ladies getting into different colour abayas and hijabs like the two ladies who passed by my table tonight dressed in all shades of pink! 

And on National Day 18 December, the colours of the Qatari flag are worn in many ways to celebrate the day in 1878 when Sheikh Jassem became Qatar's ruler and unified the tribes of the country towards beaming a nation state. 

The atmosphere is beautiful for sitting out in the evening with shisha, coffee, heavenly Arabian mint tea and the gorgeously refreshing lemon mint juice.

This year has only seen one or two days of rain so far, one of which I sat outside my favourite cafe and refused to budge even though I was getting quite soaked!  But like the smartest cows in the field, I was keeping my seat dry!!!

Qatar has its critics and and as the spotlight shines a little brighter with every passing year towards 2022 and the World Cup, the country is opened up as never before to the scrutiny of the world press.  Human rights issues are ever present here, particularly the treatment of the many expats from South Asia and Africa who do the real work around here.  Long working hours in the heat, passports kept by employers, no right to leave without the permission of the government (that rule applies to all expats, me included) and poor pay.  

So one of the reasons I love the souq, is that it is the one area of Doha in which everyone can mix together from the poorest to the richest, whatever the nationality.  The prices here are very low and kept low deliberately by the Amir to attract visitors whatever the size of their pocket.  The rents on the shops, restaurants and stalls are incredibly low and it's possible to haggle prices even lower.

The best thing though are the weekly concerts on Thursday and Friday nights by visiting artists from the region, some of them very big and famous in this part of the world.  Even better is that they are totally free.this is where some of the workers come to relax and enjoy some time together.  And the music, as I've described many times is fabulous.  Even the really big concerts to celebrate events such as Eid, various souq waqif festivals and of course national day are free.  

Another great thing about the souq (although many westerners wouldn't agree) is the absence of alcohol.  This helps to make for a more relaxed atmosphere, no bad or abusive behaviour and no tension.  Men, women and children of all races, colours and styles of dress rub along together in a casual and relaxed environment until the early hours.

Friendships are made across language and cultural boundaries and much hand shaking, nose rubbing and cheek kissing goes on.  An incredible blend of languages can be heard from the most common of Arabic, English and Hindi to all European languages, Urdu, Chinese, and many many more and as I write this, some Russians sat down at the table beside me!

So i continue to champion the souq as the place in Qatar where I feel most at home, where I meet local people and others from the region…... and from further away places too.  One evening, a lady from the United States came and joined me at my table because she was here on a lay-over to Nigera to see her daughter, and had a few hours to kill before her next flight.  We spent an easy 2 hours together sharing stories and then she went on her way…..  just another brief moment in time.