middle east

Barred from Jazz to Burning in Hell: Women, Qatar and Abayas

InstagramHajjaj.111If you alienate the middle, where the moderates are, all you’ll have left is the extreme. We’ve seen this happening in American politics as the Republicans and Democrats hurl insults at each other like parents at a toddler football game. And it’s happening in contemporary society in Qatar in the way people view or sanction behavior.

Take for example the decision banning of my paperback Love Comes Later in March. People in Doha, D.C. and everywhere in between, keep asking me why. Why was it banned? There are a few speculations based on the feedback my distributor gave me: “Because it’s about Qatar and Qataris.” A novel in English, about Qatar, written by an expat. A book that was researched for 3 years, in which the author attempts to represent Qatari life, as accurately as possible for an outsider, without the objectionable sex, politics or atheism, is still unpalatable.

Love Comes Later pops up among a list of titles that include Teaching Abdulla the Terrorist and If the Sun Doesn’t Kill You, the Washing Machine Will. Or more recently The Best Ever Book of Qatari Jokes: Specially Re-purposed for You Know Who. The description reads: “if you don’t burst out laughing from at least one Qatari joke in this book, there’s something wrong with you. This book has so many Qatari jokes; you won’t know where to start. For example: Why do Qataris wear slip-on shoes? You need an IQ of at least 4 to tie a shoelace.”

Take for another, the story of my friend Fatma. She is a dutiful Qatari daughter; she choose a mainstream major as a university student which is when I first met her. She wrote an essay for the Qatar Narratives anthology which was included in the book that became Qatari Voices. Fatma is not a rebel: “Many girls my age feel that they were born at the wrong time and in the wrong place—a place sealed with traditions and at a time that lies in between. But I could not be happier. I have traditions that keep me secure, definite, and relieved at a time that is full of risky choices.”

Fatma is proud of being Qatari. She wears her hijab “properly” (you can’t see any of her hair, her veil comes to her forehead). She’s so thin, Kate Moss would likely cut Fatma to avoid any chance of competition. But you’d never know because her abayas are not shaped to her body but hang loosely. She also loves jazz.

We exchanged a few messages about going out to Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha, the club at the St. Regis hotel in Qatar.

They don’t let Qatari women in I messaged.

I’ve taken off my abaya and they do she replied.

You did? I asked sounding like a shocked grandmother. Taking off your abaya is something Qatari women do when they want to go incognito. Ironically it’s a way of hiding in plain sight: Qataris scan crowds for other Qataris, skipping over expats. I’ve known other friends who have done this to go out with people their families would disapprove of. In Fatma’s case, she wasn’t hiding from family in public, she was doing the necessary, as mandated by law, in order to do something else she loved: listen to live jazz music with female friends.

The week was long, and the nights short with the baby, so I lost track of the conversation and went to bed early. The next day she told me what happened. And her intention to write about it. “I, a Qatari woman, was banned from an event that celebrated the women of jazz.  The obvious irony aside, I also was embarrassed when the guest relation’s manager politely, but firmly denied my entrance.  What really embarrassed me though was the thought that as a citizen of Qatar, I was banned from enjoying this unique art form…in Qatar!”

The first few days, people rallied to her cause. Other women agreed the rule that no Qatari women are allowed in the club – Qatari men not in national dress are – was unfair and silly. Men supported her for speaking out. All of this conversation was in English, on Facebook, or the original blog that posted her piece, JustHere.qa.

Not everyone appreciated the irony that jazz appreciation, like so many other specialized new activities in Qatar, cannot be enjoyed by half the citizens in the country. As Fatma says: “Nonetheless, I tolerated that no ‘national dress’ rule, donned a colorful hijab, modest shirt and skirt and went for one purpose: to enjoy jazz as it’s meant to be heard – live. Now, it would seem that ‘national dress’ is no longer an issue. Women are the issue. Qatari women.”

Others joined the conversation in full force, her critics posting under nicknames.

Commentators on an Arabic site asked how dare a Qatari woman go to a club that serves alcohol and take off her abaya.

She was called “an infidel, atheist, slut, will never get married, should burn in hell, ignorant, outcast who belongs to here on papers only, a shame to her tribe.” She was told she “should leave.” One commentator deduced “this is what studying abroad does to women.”

Fatma completed her degree at the national university that has separate campuses for male and female students.

There are multiple layers of conversation here; about what is acceptable behavior for women, either in written or physical form, whether expat or Qatar.  On both levels we see a society that has many ambivalent attitudes towards women’s place in the  public sphere.







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What Has She Done? Review of Etel Adnan in All Her Dimensions

Yellow sun. Orange sun.  What has she done? At first glance everything seems so ho-hum. Etel Adnan in All Her Dimensions is not an exhibit that grabs your attention like other work in the same building. You may hate or love performance Mona Hatoum, for example, or find Manal Al Dowayan’s project on Saudi teachers is too narrow, but at least they elicit a visceral reaction.

With Adnan, there’s nothing to offend or excite: no human shapes, no bifurcated animals, no female genitalia. All these have been present and offended members of the public in recent examples of public art in Qatar.  Only endless empty landscapes: yellow, orange, red, and green. The primary colors appear again and again in unmediated, unrelenting, unapologetic repetition in effect creating a visual blindness. “Sweet,” you might murmur to a friend. “I don’t get you,” someone said hovering over a Josephesque tapestry.

Etel Adnan doesn’t mix her paints, you see. The oils come out of their tubes and onto the canvas. Her angles, her shapes, her instinct feels like my three year old on a Saturday morning: carefree, oblivious of the fact he should be interesting to warrant an entire floor of the Arab Museum of Modern Art.

On the surface her art is sweet, even feminine, acceptable to the public Islamic register. Her pleated, accordion fold leporello are playful; the Arabic poetry inscribed upon on them borrowed for Adnan, long an exile of the Arab world, has lost fluency in her mother tongue.

At the tune of 50,000 USD a canvas, these are worth much more than the thumb tacked paintings in my children’s playroom.

The price tag makes you take notice, if the landscapes or black and white sketches do not. You do some digging. Adnan’s strength, many argue, is as a writer who dabbles in painting. 89 years old, a lightening rod for her politics, she is a feminist Lebanese American writer, filmmaker and activist. Her private life, illegal in most Middle Eastern countries, is private in the exhibit itself; an interesting move to support alternative lifestyles while at the same time covering it.

A wall of quotes in English, Arabic, and French illuminates Adnan’s politics: “I tell myself that it would be better to let loose a million birds in the sky over Lebanon, so that these hunters could practice on then, and this carnage could be avoided.” Perhaps this is why the relentless, endless landscape: empty of humans who can wreck so much violence.

Regardless of the reason, you’ve spent this much time thinking about her. Which in itself says something.

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Love Comes Later Joins the Banned Books List

Since I first began contemplating writing a novel about modern love in Qatar (back in 2009) the possibility my book would not be sold in the country where it was set, researched and Lovecomeslaterflowerswritten lurked in the back of my mind.

It didn’t restrain me necessarily, so much as presented an artistic challenge.  Could I write within the sensibilities of the public culture and still have something to say? I fancied myself an Oscar Wilde of the desert; a writer of my times producing content as part of the society I lived in. In case you’re unfamiliar with the big three objections of said public culture in the GCC they include: no sex, no atheism and no politics. Some readers may be disappointed to hear there’s none of any Love Comes Later.

What there is, however, is a sustained examination of life in Qatar for modern twentysomething Qataris. The online news outlet, Just Here, has some insights which situate this latest verbal only decision to ban this book.

There’s a death by car accident; reluctant engagements; difficult conversations with parents; and of course, one passionate kiss.

I’ve no concrete details about which of these chain of events in particular is in violation of the censor’s interpretation of public sensibilities.

But I will keep you posted.

In the meantime, maybe you want to have a read for yourself?





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Wordless Wednesday: Love Comes Later Book Events in Qatar

I was lucky enough to combine work/leisure over the winter holidays, visiting with family and meeting readers in the United States.

Today Love Comes Later becomes widely available in paperback to readers in Qatar.

Which of my books would you like to see in paperback next? I’m debating between From Dunes to Dior and The Dohmestics.

Or you’d like something else? Drop me a note in the comments and let me know!


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How Many Lives Did That Ticket Cost?

Doha Night Skyline

Doha Night Skyline (Photo credit: christian.senger)


In the economies of the Arabian Gulf, race, social class, and occupation create a visible stratification.  Anyone familiar with the GCC will not be unfamiliar with the stories of worker abuse. Whether the domestic workers found cleaning in many homes, or the men in blue overalls hanging from the scaffolding of new buildings, the physically smaller manual laborer is most likely from an impoverished country. Perhaps there’s nothing new there.


A Middle Eastern country bidding, and being awarded the World Cup, however, is historic. Criticism of the region’s skyrocketing desert temperatures in summer has already caused censure of the FIFA decision to name Qatar as the host country for 2022 and calls for the Cup to be moved or rescheduled for winter.


Earlier this week The Guardian’s incisive report on the deplorable conditions of Nepalese workers in Doha caused a flurry of petitions, comments, and even the relocating of an ambassador. 4000 people may die in the construction of stadiums, The Guardian estimated. The questions around the building of stadiums in Qatar can and should be expanded to larger questions of the exploitation of developing economies in general.


Easy enough to be shocked or feel badly for men driven around the city of Doha in dilapidated school buses with no air conditioning.


Almost a required reaction from the liberal GCC based expat.


Yet how many of us offer the maintenance men  a drink of water when they come to fix a toilet, light blub or air conditioner in our homes? The guy who gets 15 QR to wash your car in the blazing heat of summer, does he get a tip? Perhaps it’s easier to be outraged by the World Cup stadiums because they are a tangible symbol of exploitation. Far more difficult to see our insidious participation in the day to day. Easier still is the moral outrage when similar injustice happens to those among us.


Far more difficult to quantify how many are dying all over the world in similar projects. Yes, there are labor issues in Qatar. Yes, it is more difficult to ignore them here than the homeless man with a WILL WORK FOR FOOD sign on M street, in Georgetown, one of Washington DC’s most fashionable neighborhoods.


How many of the undocumented workers, day laborers, who wait in gas stations to be picked up for odd jobs, die in the United States per year?


How many slum children selling candy tap at the window of our taxis at stop lights in Delhi while we look away?


Why is it not as easy to look away in Qatar?


The scale. There are so many more of the men in blue jumpsuits than those with cardboard signs.


The visibility. Even when these men take off their blue overalls on the weekend, they cannot blend in, the way a plumber can change out of uniform and go about his business.


The time. We like to think of economic exploitation, like racism, or gender discrimination, as the ghosts of our parents (or even grandparents’) pasts. But inequity persists.


The fact is, economic exploitation is not new or unique to the Gulf, nor is this the first growing economy to use migrant workers. Think of New York City, a place where present day real estate is worth more than what the average worker who built a skyscraper there probably made in his lifetime.


The talk swirling around Qatar is reminiscent of the protests when Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics. Activists objected to the China as a host country with a deplorable human rights record. A country that conscripted workers to build its largest feature, the only human erected object visible from space: the Great Wall of China. Exploitation of those weaker, smaller, and more needy than us is as old as the human experience.


What has changed, thankfully, is the ability to engage the rule of law as a protective mechanism.


Examples abound of how international sporting events harm as much as they entertain; from country to country, year after year.


Yes, the juggling of the desire to be global players comes along with the scrutiny of being on the global stage. Without such a stage, these questions would never be asked. And men like the sixteen year old, who forged documents to work in Qatar, would continue to lose their lives as part of a silent army.


Our job as spectators and conscious citizens in our day to day lives is support whoever we can, however we can. Not to relish a self-assigned role as a superior being passing judgment on societies in transition (as seems to be the current popular strain of neo-imperialism).

If there were no World Cup 2022, would the world care about Nepali workers?

We can blame indifferent governments, greedy business owners, or heartless employers. But in the meantime, for the person waiting for a shred of humanity, nothing has changed while we conduct our esoteric discussion.

Give the bus driver who has been waiting for your guests all night a chance to eat dinner.

Teach your domestic worker, who speaks three (or more languages), how to read English, five words at a time.

Do the good you can. The law will catch up eventually.

In the meantime, you may be the next best thing for the guy holding a bottle of water and a banana. You know, the one waiting behind your mountain of groceries in the checkout line.







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Vietnam/Cambodia. Somalia/Rwanda. Iraq/Syria?

Me, on mount Qassioun above Damascus, 2009

Me, on mount Qassioun above Damascus, 2009

I’ve been looking for a publicist. Imagine my surprise, when in the middle of a recent chat about books, author platform, and realistic publicity goals, she asked me what people in Qatar thought about the conflict in Syria. Apparently the war has finally caught the attention of the average American. We had this conversation despite stats that Miley Cyrus has garnered 12 times more hits than the Syrian crisis.

The arguments for this conflict are dismally familiar: an Arab dictator, using chemical weapons against his own people. The specter of the Iraq war looms, reminding us the childhood parable, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is not necessarily a story for kids. Unlike the Cold War, we are wary of arming freedom fighters today who will likely become our antagonists tomorrow.

I have lived in the Middle East for the last 8 years. I studied Arabic in Damascus for six weeks. An amazing city, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited capital is dying along with her residents.

And yet I still didn’t pass the New York Times’ quiz on Syrian News.

The situation is complex; the history is contemporary.

Many of us may not have been alive during the draft but we have seen the photo of the young Vietnamese napalm victim.

You may not remember what the conflict in Somalia was about but you probably saw the movie Black Hawk Down.

We couldn’t have pointed to Rwanda on a map but cried buckets as Don Cheadle portrayed Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda.

Perhaps that moment hasn’t come in Syrian conflict. Maybe at the height of this media age, we haven’t had the soundbite that will move us to action.

The United States has a track record of being burned in conflict (Vietnam) and then staying out when the world’s largest military could be useful (Cambodia). Such flip-flopping of foreign policy makes people skeptical of America’s intentions.

Maybe the world has lost its stomach for war; after all, John Kerry’s off hand suggestion that Syria turn over weapons to the U.N. has already been accepted in principle by Russia.

The fact is the conflict has been building with thousands of men, women, and children dying.

Perhaps now they are getting the attention they are due. Experts say we are called to action because chemical weapons are illegal. What about the other thousands who have died since the conflict started?

Perhaps their photos didn’t shock the international community as much as the shrouds of all shapes and sizes a few weeks ago.







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Wordless Wednesday: Qatar Takes Over the World

I kid you not, that was the headline of Fortune Magazine’s recent article on Qatar.

What surprised me more, however, was the accompanying photo. Taken of the West bay area of the capital city, the image reminded me of the helicopter shots of another famous peninsula-like city, Manhattan.

What do you think of when you see this image?


qatar skyline

West bay, Qatar by Fortune Magazine


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Wordless Wednesday: A French Maid, Free Laundry, and Lunch


Advertisement by the Grand Hyatt Doha

In need of laundry, lunch and ahem, some service? Here’s an example of a well targeted ad – the audience is men who are left in Doha while their families travel on summer holiday – but the creativity calls up the worst of sexism.

What do you think? Did they go too far? Or is this meant to be in tongue in cheek?

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Hierarchy of Sorrow: Boston, Delhi, Damascus


Syria (Photo credit: ewixx)


Last week from a sofa in a hospital room, after having delivered our second baby boy, I woke up at 1 a.m. Adrenaline or jetlag like false sense of sleep saturation had me reaching for my phone in the pitch black of the room. Across the coffee table, a good friend who had volunteered for night duty was resting. The baby was in the nursery. I went on Facebook.


The news feed of many of American friends, at home and abroad, was filled with the news of the bombing at the finish line of the Boston marathon. I couldn’t believe my eyes at the photos and had to turn off the phone to stem off the hormonal induced shock at the images, facts, and sounds.


As the facts unfolded – 3 dead, many more wounded – a puzzled reaction swept the part of the world I live in, the Middle East.


What about people in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, was the question circulating on Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere. Where is the empathy, shock, horror, concern for them?


A former student and now friend posted “I’m sorry to hear about Boston, sorry for all the casualties. Pray for Syria, it deserves far more sympathy. Pray for Syria twice as much!”.


Having studied Arabic in Damascus a few years ago, I have been watching the escalating tensions there with dread and anger at a “leader” who would treat his people as pawns.


But the assertion of my student made me uncomfortable.


Can we weigh on a scale those who are more deserving of empathy? Is it judged by the number of causalities?


Or, as mainstream American media seems to suggest, do we rate based on a scale of how the tragedies happen? Are civilians in peace time, running a marathon or going to work, more deserving than those who are living in a country entrenched in civil war?


I don’t know. I do know from my hospital bed, recovering from having a baby, that most frail and dependent of creatures, the symbol of all that is possible of humanity, I resisted the notion that my loyalties predict my sympathies and said as much to my friend on his wall:


“I understand what you are trying to say but let’s remember our hearts can juggle compassion for all. Clearly the media, government and politics cannot. I stand with Syrians as the land where I learned Arabic and hope that governments will stop turning blind eyes. Sympathy is not a competition. The more we learn that, the more we can come together as one. (not intending to lecture, your post did strike a chord with me as a new mother X2 from this past Sunday). I want my children to live in a compassionate world, better than the bi-partisan one I inherited. Now we pray for Iran, regardless of how we feel about nukes/presidents/etc.”


We had a great discussion (yes on Facebook wall posts as he was abroad).


Later in the week the question came again on Twitter: “Boston boston. Pls send your view: rape in Delhi why again and again?”


The commenter was talking about the rape of a 5 year old girl whose body had been dumped in a dumpster and found with foreign objects, including a candle, inside. I had read of the case with horror and posted about it on social media as well. As an Indian woman, mother, wife, and daughter, I was ashamed, distraught, and troubled by not only this incident but all of them since the watershed December case with a pharmacy student on a bus. Indian media commentators were asking: why did we care so much about her? What about the 5, 6, 10 year olds (and the ones we never know about about)? Don’t we care about them?


All of which brings me back to the same question: how much room do we have in our hearts? Can we only care for those who know immediately? Or is there some larger, universal ability to feel compassion that comes with our “advanced” technologies in the era of 24 hour media?


I do know when I saw the photo of the 19 year old, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the remaining bomb plotter, my heart clenched. Somewhere, something went horribly wrong for this younger brother. I couldn’t help but think of my own boys, presently 2.5 and 1 week old. What would they grow up to do? Would the older one mislead the younger? And could the younger use this as his excuse for wrecking havoc?

In the end, it all comes down to relationships. Right?




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Wordless Wednesday: In Case of Emergency, Do NOT Go Outside

Shocking to most of the residents in Qatar yesterday was the sensation, yet again in less than a week, of earthquake tremors from a second Iranian quake, this one measuring nearly 8 point on the Richter scale. While most people missed the first one, the second was noted by people in almost all neighborhoods across the city of Doha. Coming as it did on the heels of the bombs planted at the end of the Boston Marathon, everyone was literally shaken.

“The world is changing,” people kept saying all day. “Qatar is changing.” Will we still be the sleepy place everyone thinks of as ultra safe, laughing at presenters who suggest earthquake preparedness or other hazards?

One thing is certain, people rushing out of buildings like the Tornado tower, will have to think twice about what to do next if there is an emergency. Glass falling all over the area known as West Bay is likely in any real quake or other incident in that neighborhood.



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