Hinings-Marshall, Lynette. “Qatar: Sunshine, Sand and Souqs.”
Transnational Literature, v ol. 12, November 2020
Qatar: Sunshine, Sand and Souqs
I am told to wait in the ladies’ lounge for the last leg of my flight to join my husband Paul in Doha. Every other woman in the room is covered in a black abaya and most wear face masks. I try not to stare. I am fantasising about dining on Persian carpets in tents in the Qatari desert when my flight is called. Onboard, across the aisle, a woman has a dazzling rock that is definitely not zircon on her elegant, groomed hand. She is casually holding a young boy on her lap while speaking loudly into the cell phone held near her black-robed ear. Surely, she must be disturbing the entire aircraft I am thinking when my seat companion towers over me, indicating his seat is at the window. He looks like the emblematic stranger—tall, dark and handsome—in his crisp, bridal-white thobe. But he is even more exotic than that. The lower portion of his arm is encased in heavy leather and perched on his forearm is a falcon—still and unmoving. I want so much to ask about the falcon, about Doha, but am unsure of local mores. Can I, as a woman, begin a conversation with a Qatari man? Best not. With some regret I close my eyes and nap.
I am awoken by commotion. Across the aisle, a flight attendant is facing the female passenger. He is prevailing upon her to strap her child under her seatbelt. The woman dismisses him with a wave of her hand and continues her conversation. The aircraft is not moving. Next, the cockpit door opens and the captain strides down the aisle. He gestures to the woman to fasten in her child. Departure is now half an hour late. Stunned, I watch the captain shrug and return to the cockpit. The aircraft takes off with the child still dangling freely on his mother’s lap while she continues speaking on her phone. Several women friends in Colorado were angry with me when I told them I was moving to Qatar.
“How could you live in a country where women are second-class citizens?”
“You are a disgrace to the women’s movement.”
I wish they could see this tableau.
A jet blast of heat hits me as I step out of the plane at Doha airport. I almost stumble down the steps when my sunglasses fog up from the humidity. There’s a small, shabby terminal some way off. I’m nervous. What if my visa is not correct after all those months waiting? What if Paul is not here to meet me? The inside of the terminal has the congeniality of an abattoir. I stand behind glass while the uniformed immigration official scans my passport.
“Health card,” he demands, pointing to where I have to place it.
His mannerisms are as crisp as his words. My stomach churns. Finally, he swings open the
door and gestures for me to pass through. I rush to the solitary luggage belt. No sign of Paul. I hand my luggage to a porter and walk the few steps to customs, all the while scanning for Paul. I see him only after I exit the terminal. He’s waiting patiently in a non-air-conditioned area.
“Hello, my love,” he says, thrusting a wilted bunch of flowers at me.
He’s chubbier and is sweating in the torrid heat.
“You have to walk to the carpark. Only taxis are allowed to pull up at the terminal and I
hired a car.”
“That’s fine. How are you darling?”
“Okay. I’m a bit worried you’ll get bored real fast here.” “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry, we’re together again.”
It is disorienting driving over flat, barren land with sand stretching away to the horizon. Black ribbons of bitumen wind through the melancholy landscape. A couple of high-rise buildings mark the existence of Doha. In Kuala Lumpur there were no English street signs, so we navigated by locating buildings. “Turn left at the Sony building.” But here, not only are there no English street signs, but there are no landmark buildings either. I hold Paul’s hand and gaze out the window. My life is about to change, and I can’t wait. We’ve arrived in a small cul-de-sac at an old-fashioned American style 70s brick ranch. Paul says, “Remember our budget is only 10,000 riyals a month for living expenses.” Inside my heart sinks at the jumble of cheaply made furniture.
I glance at his tense face and smile, “You were very clever to find such a large place for that price.” His shoulders relax. While he goes to let out our two cats, I lift a settee cushion. The couch fabric is stapled to the frame. I wonder how I will convince Paul we need to find something more suitable. In the kitchen I am pleasantly surprised to see that the house nestles in the centre of a plantation of orange dates. Then I remember Paul saying this was the reason he chose it.
“The dates are a delicacy for export,” says Paul behind me. “They come twice a year to pick them and they always leave a basketful for us. The cats love running up and down the palms.”
I feel less critical as Paul shows me through the remainder of our latest home.
Next morning, unpacked and alone in the house, I open the door to the back garden. The heat slams me. Paul was right the previous night. “You can’t walk in this heat, so please don’t try.” With a weekly maid service, there is little for me to do. I see now why Paul was so concerned about me becoming bored here.
“May I order a taxi please?” I ask the operator of the only English-speaking service in the city.
“The taxi will come at 10am madam.”
“I’m sorry but I’m confused. Why is there more than an hour’s wait?”
“All taxis are prebooked to take the children to school.”
“Does that mean they are booked every afternoon too?”
I walk next door to meet the daughter of Paul’s work colleague. Jennifer walks me through
the trees to our swimming pool and my heart sinks when I see the grubby glass panels, but I am fascinated when she says all pools in Doha are refrigerated. My taxi arrives to take me to the Sheraton Resort where Paul has arranged membership so I can enjoy tennis, yoga, swimming and dining with other expats. Through the taxi window I see a dusty little town that may be devoid of architecture and monuments, but I can’t stop smiling. I’m in a capital city that is the size of a country town, comprising square, low-rise, white cement buildings amid palm trees; all built on sand. Tomorrow my shopping will be at a souq where I expect to buy exotic spices. All I need is a sheikh to make me feel like I’m living the life of Aladdin. I want to shout out the taxi window, “My life is wonderful!”
At the supermarket I watch a Qatari woman sitting in the back of her Mercedes, the air-conditioning purring, while supermarket staff struggle in the skin-burning heat to fit her shopping in the trunk. She neither acknowledges their presence, nor thanks them as her chauffeur accelerates away. Paul explains later that I too need to leave the car’s air-conditioning running while shopping. “The butter will turn to oil in seconds if you don’t.”
“Won’t somebody steal the car?”
I was too disoriented yesterday morning to realize the implications of Paul’s comment as
he left for the office, “Just pull the door shut when you leave, I’ll get a spare key as soon as I can.” Perhaps we are not at risk from theft because our “otherness” is so stark nobody would dare steal from us. Perhaps it is because the Qataris’ innate hospitality and Bedouin values do not countenance such behaviour. I need to view life through a localized lens if I am to gain insight into this very different culture. After my airplane and supermarket experiences I am definitely interested in learning more about Qatari women.
“It’s only because they’re jailed if they steal,” Caroline says.
I worked around the ugly interior of our home by creating a dining area in the paved garden out back. Fairy lights strung through the date palms, a long table with matching dining chairs from a departing expat, beautiful Arabic pots and colourful linens and tableware have transformed the space. With generous alcohol allowances we expats have weekly BYO (Bring Your Own) dinner parties.
“If you’re caught drinking alcohol outside your home, they flog you,” Caroline’s husband Adam says.
“They still cut off your right hand in Chop Square in Saudi if you steal.” Nobody touches that one.
“What do you know about the Qatari women?” I ask. “I was surprised to see them walking
behind their husbands.”
“I’d walk behind Adam too if that’s all I have to do for Givenchy under my abaya and a
three-carat pink diamond ring.”
“Don’t forget sharia law means every wife has to have exactly the same. If wife number
one has a Mercedes, wives two, three and four also have to have one,” says Paul.
This is new information that every wife has to be treated so equally, but I would like to
ask a Qatari woman if wearing the abaya is a statement that this is how they think relationships should be between men and women. I am drawn back to the dinner table when Adam says, “I know a teacher here who got 40 lashes for drinking.”
“I know somebody too, but they leave your clothes on so that the skin isn’t broken,” says Caroline.
“Let’s drink to their compassion,” someone says. Tonight’s dinner will be the last outdoor dining for several months because summer is looming. The revolving door of expats leaving and returning spins faster here than in other countries like Kuala Lumpur because, in addition to the everyday element of contracts beginning and ending, the arrival of the much-dreaded summer means a mass exodus of expat women and children.
“It’s always such a great feeling getting on that BA flight, hearing the Captain's British voice and then later, seeing all that green when we’re coming into land,” Caroline says as talk turns to summer plans.
“You’re lucky to be going home. We’ve had to rent out our home in England, so the children and I are off to Cyprus which is all we can afford,” says Allison.
The scorching heat drains me of energy even when I have slept eight hours. It wraps tightly around me like a fiery straitjacket and is so fierce one of my contact lenses dries up and falls out of my eye. There is no escape from the sensation of being inside an oven. The windows at home steam up as the calendar turns to the hottest months of July and August. I run from the car to air-conditioned stores. “Don’t sit on the seat belt in the car because you will suffer severe burns,” Paul reminds me.
Tennis in the air-conditioned courts at the Sheraton is a lifesaver.
“You’re so lucky,” Thandi says when we are having a juice after tennis. “My kids hardly know their father and I can’t remember the last time we had dinner together, as a family, on weeknights.”
She is referring to Paul’s job at the Ministry. He works from 7am to 1pm then security insists everyone leave the building by 1.10pm every day. Thandi is right. Most working expatriates are like her husband and only have an hour for lunch and work six days a week from 7am to 7pm (and usually longer). I am very lucky indeed.
Without wanting to resort to tropes of global citizenship, I wonder if I have become addicted to that exciting edge to things that being “other” brings. I’ve read a lot of literature lately about how being “other” can become central to the identity construction of female expats. I lived in Denver for eleven years and felt special when somebody asked, “Where are you from?” I never hesitated, “I’m Australian.” In Kuala Lumpur where I made friends with several Australian women,
it was natural to identify as Australian. However, the other day at the Sheraton club when
someone asked me where I was from, I didn’t know how to answer. I had become an American
citizen prior to meeting Paul in Denver, and we intend to retire there, so responding, “I’m
Australian” doesn’t seem to fit any longer.
From 1.30pm to 4pm every day Doha is quiet while locals are having a siesta or gayloulah as it’s known in the Middle East. Paul and I are the sole car on the road in a hushed city, en route to the tennis club. On the way home the familiar crooning of the mu’addhin (call to prayer) begins. I say to Paul, “I don’t think I will ever tire of hearing this.”
“Give it time,” he replies. “Wouldn’t you like to see the end of a movie?”
I laugh. He is right. Broadcasting of television shows and movies are abruptly stopped for the call to prayer five times a day, but programmes keep running. I have lost count of how many mysteries I have watched only to never discover who did it.
“At least I don’t have to wear an abaya at the club.”
“Just don’t get too casual. You can only wear Western clothes outside the car after you are inside the gates of the Sheraton.”
Unlike many expatriate women who wear the black abaya when shopping I chose colourful Hawaiian style full-length shifts with long sleeves that feel more familiar. I am slowly learning that for Qatari women there is a certain mystique in invisibility. It can be intimate and seductive to only be seen by the man you love. “A Qatari woman told me that she feels sorry for Western women as we all have to work and put up with men bothering us all the time,” Caroline tells me. “She said that covering herself up with an abaya gave her more freedom. Qatari women are unconcerned about what others think of them.”
Qatar is the fourth country I have lived in since leaving Australia. Tennis, yoga, and women’s gatherings facilitate my social immersion, but it is as if my identity map is a puzzle with pieces shifting and changing in each new country. An example is how there were four distinctive seasons in Colorado, then torrential downpours every day at 4pm in tropical Kuala Lumpur, and now endless sunshine and unrelenting heat in Qatar. What does remain constant is Paul and socializing with expat women. I do not know how long we will stay in Doha, but I have no need to see an end date. This transnational lifestyle allows me to decide how I would like to be identified by others, which groups I want to belong to, and which elements of my identity are the best fit for each new destination. But two questions remain: “where am I from? and “where is home?” With each new move these questions inexorably become more complicated. After more than a decade of living in Colorado we will retire there. So, is Colorado now home?
I start a book club that stutters and dies because in this soporific lifestyle ennui prevails. Expat women in Doha are overwhelmingly welcoming but so far there is no constancy in friendships. Some of us see each other regularly but there are others that I only meet by chance. It seems common practice to not commit to invitations in case something better comes along, and I cannot be sure who has left town just for the summer or forever. In letters I describe Doha as a massive sand pit with a couple of shopping centres and up-market housing compounds randomly placed as if by a child carelessly discarding their toys. Everywhere the searing heat shimmers and dances off the sand. Most days leaving the house is forbidding.
In October, Doha activities restart. Today Titanic is being shown in English. I am alone as Paul said he preferred to read. Just as DiCaprio encourages Winslet to fly from the ship’s bow, the movie-goer next to me speaks loudly into his cell phone. After several minutes of this I lean over and whisper.
“Excuse me, but do you mind?”
“I’m speaking on the phone,” he replies loudly then continues shouting in Arabic into his phone. A filled cinema leaves nowhere else to sit, so I stand at the back. This reminds me of my first operatic performance in Doha when I discovered that the tenor had retired more than twenty years ago, and his voice was so broken I left at intermission. In banks and supermarkets Qatari men always step in front of me to be served. Maybe I should be telling my women friends in the U.S. about these minor disappointments instead of only the glossy bits. My expatriate life is the leisurely, carefree life I convey in my emails and letters, but I feel my nemesis looming. What happened to that corporate woman? Is this how I am to spend the rest of my life? Have I changed my life so often because I want everything to morph and change and evolve? Is the test about how well I maintain my equilibrium throughout the process? And if change is what I want, why do I feel so discombobulated of late?
In early November, I am lunching with friends by the Sheraton pool when I blurt out, “I think I need to find a job.”
My words hang in the air. Finally, Thandi says, “Don’t put yourself through that. It will never happen.”
“I was a senior executive in London,” Caroline says, “and I can’t get any job here.”
“You’ll have to work six days a week and Paul’ll be lonely every afternoon.”
“No, he won’t. He’ll play tennis with us,” Allison says.
I smile and change the subject. When I get home I say to Paul, “I definitely need a job.”
“I said you’d be bored,” he replies, then seeing my face, adds, “Do you have something in
“Probably tourism or education. Can you find me something at the Ministry? I’ll do anything.”
“I’ll ask tomorrow, my love,” he says. “But I doubt it.”
I definitely will have to find work, but in the meantime, I am taking more photographs while the autumn light evokes new architectural lines in this peaceful landscape. The monotony remains with blue skies every day and no likelihood of rain. I long to swim in a non-refrigerated pool. The other day I forgot which house I was in and swiped my hand around the wrong side of the wall for the light switch.
I love this transnational life of blurring, changing landscapes but it seems that adjusting to new experiences overwhelms the past for just a while before I am re-centred. Then everything is too familiar, and I am ready for another adventure. Perhaps there will come a time when, during this transition time before our next destination is known, I will no longer feel as I do today – unshielded, permeable, and uncertain.
Since Lynette Hinings-Marshall swapped a successful corporate life in Australia for her own tourism school in the United States she has lived in nine countries. Lynette now splits her time between San Diego, California and the Mornington Peninsula in Australia, and is a creative arts PhD student at Deakin University.