Sunday, May 31, 2009

Chaptette 8: Normal Curves and Straight Lines

Doha bathrooms have bidets. Even the GAS station bathrooms have them! I'm really not part of the "blame America first" crowd, but public bathrooms in the US could use a serious upgrade ("We're, um, 'Number 1'?") The toilets themselves typically have two flushing buttons. Ok....

Because of its conservative Islamic tradition, public bathrooms are strictly segregated by sex.

My laundry machine both washes and dries. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out how to use it. Yeah, right, like you can do better. Look at the
front of that machine, and tell me you know what those buttons are for and what the icons mean. I studied them, as if I were translating ancient hieroglyphics (the scholar asks himself "Does that icon represent "no socks"? "add softener?" "take a shower?") I wish the buttons had just been labeled with Arabic, so I could look at them and say "I don't know Arabic". "Universal" icons just made me feel "uniquely" stupid.

My washer is much better. It doesn't clean dishes very well, but at least I understand it. You push one button and it helpfully shows a display: "English?" You push another button and the screen reads "Normal," "Rinse" and so forth. I need to get it to talk with the washer/dryer.

The pictures clearly show that appliances in Qatar are asymmetrical, and pictures don't lie.

The microwave? Like all its tribe, it is a machine of many buttons. As with every microwave, I only need one: I keep pushing the "add 30 seconds" button until whatever I'm cooking explodes inside. Then it's done.

The electrical plugs are pretty cool. They have three prongs and one generally shoves in a universal (!!) three prong adapter; this accepts any power cord, the slut. All outlets do have an "on-off" switch, so the outlet is not hot until you turn it on. This seems like a pretty good idea to me, after I figured out why the iron wouldn't work, my laptop wouldn't charge, etc. unless I turned the power on. But now I know this: I'm almost Qatari!

The pool is simple operate. Jump in. The first two weeks I was here, the pool was not chilled. In fact, the water temperature was exactly 98.6 Fahrenheit, which made me feel like I was swimming in....oh, never mind. But you wouldn't want to swim in it. Today, it was delightfully cool, and breezy. It only lacked women without veils and drinks not from fruit juice bottles. (Surely some literary style allows for repetitive elements running through the chapters, right?)

Here I am, trying to figure out how to use my appliances.

I would have posted a picture of my camera, too, but it is not autophotographical.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Chaptette 7: Null Set

I awoke this morning with much on my mind. Better go for a long, leisurely, bike ride to nowhere. This time, no goals, no "nice" numbers, just riding. I didn't even peek at the bike's display panel.

Much. (64.45 minutes at an average speed of 27.6K/H)

Afterwards, lacking the normal vices, I decided to lie out by the pool (it was only about 8.30 a.m.) without any sunblock. I sneer at you, behavioral risk!

Several years ago, at a routine physical exam, I made this pitch to my doctor: "Hey, look, when I was a kid I played lots of tennis, worked on a farm, and served as a lifeguard. I'm sure I've been exposed to 98 percent of the sun that I'll see in my life. At this point, do I really need to worry about sunblock?"

What she said: "Yes."
What I heard: "Don't be a moron."

When we were at The Ritz yesterday, I decided to check out the pool scene there. When I got here, I had fantasies about walking to the beach every morning, going for a little swim, and just enjoying the waves. Yes, that is a fantasy. Even though Doha is on the Gulf, there are no good public beaches here, so if you want the beach experience you buy a day pass from one of the luxury hotels and use their beach/pool. So I had a good reason to check it out. The pool area was glorious: waterfalls, flowers, little reflecting pools, palm trees, and pretty much what you might expect that Brangelina might expect. My synapses really started crackling when I discovered that there were women not wearing veils and drinks not poured from fruit juice bottles. Exit stage left. Besides, it costs 250QR (about $70). That seemed like too much to get wet.

Afterward, Craig and I went to the City Centre Mall: that's where the ice skating rink and a movie theater are. No Qataris were skating, perhaps because they all wear sandels (men) or shoes (women), without socks. Only one Arabic movie was showing, and it didn't have subtitles. I didn't want to see any of the US films (yes, ALL the other 8 or so movies were from the US) so I read and walked around until he got out.

Random Facts:

1. City Centre is to Villagio what Dollar Store is to Gucci.

2. All Qataris wear black (women) and white (men). A few women were fully covered (veils, gloves) with no body parts visible at all. A few more wore face scarves with holes for the eyes. Most wore headresses with exposed faces. All the men wear the long white shirt and white headresses with black ties, but there is an infinite variety in their exact cut and style: I assume that Qataris can determine status differences from such things.

3. The easily-identifiable Americans looked just like they do back home: sloppy.

4. I've never been in a place where it is SO obvious who is native and who is not. Even at football games at Razorback stadium, at least SOME locals don't wear Hog hats.

5. I bought a camera.

6. Smoking is allowed. It's now hard for me to believe, but US malls used to be filled with smoke, too. How easily our definition of what is "normal" can change.

7. You can make facts up and post them on the internet. It's easy to do!

I'm thinking of all my family and friends today, and I'm missing them.

Chaptette 6: ((Pen)(insula)r)

Qatar is a peninsula, and a very insular one, a hitch-hiker's thumb sticking out of Saudia Arabia into the Persian Gulf. Not island enough for you? Not to worry: Doha's building its own island, The Pearl ( Craig, David and I visited there this afternoon.

How insular is it here? Craig met David at the Doha airport; David has just been hired to direct the undergraduate program at UMASS-Amherst that Craig attended. David is here for a conference (on the rule of law in arabic culture, or something like that). It's being held at The Ritz (we do like our 5-star hotels here) near The Pearl. We walk into the Ritz, and who do we meet? Michael, here on a Fulbright, who turns out to be the guy I met yesterday at the library and sent to get the security guard after the staffer collapsed. Oh, yes, David knew Michael, as he had also been here on a Fulbright. So, like a pearl, our circles are small.

I'm tempted to attend the conference on the rule of law -- all the regional Major Domos will be there. More importantly, I'm not sure how laws are viewed here. Yesterday in my quant class I showed clips from the fabulous movie "12 Angry Men" -- I won't go into an entire teaching moment here, but essentially it's about hypothesis testing (is the accused innocent or guilty?). The class looked slightly puzzled when I noted that in the US the rule of law means, in part, that an individual is innocent until proven guilty. Well, I'm not sure whether the class was puzzled or merely skeptical: I gather that here the Qataris are generally assumed to be innocent and the immigrant workers guilty. Nothing like that would EVER happen in the US.

It didn't in the (did I mention fabulous?) movie 12 Angry Men. (Go. Rent. It.) As Hollywood shows it, 11 men quickly vote to send a young man to the electric chair for killing his father, until the Man in the White Suite (Henry Fonda, as an architect) gradually convinces all 11 others to acquit through the power of his calm analysis, reason, and argument.

But then I read "An Innocent Man" (John Grisham), his non-fictional account of how several men were sentenced to life (or given a death sentence) on the basis of the most flimsy, fabricated evidence, the wildest stories of jailhouse snitches, and coerced confessions....

Oh. Maybe the US and Qatar have more in common than I thought...For what it's worth, Qatar is one of the safest countries in the world. Ok, maybe the US does not have THAT in common.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Chaptette 5: Nature and the Machine, Part Deux

Forty percent of Qatari children are obese (thank you, western culture!) and just under 20 percent of Qatari adults have diabetes (a lower rate than in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and perhaps some other countries). This is pretty understandable. Given the heat, Doha is a "mall" culture, and when you're there why not stop by the food court and have a little snack, eh?

If I airlifted you into the Villagio mall at midnight, and dropped you into the food court, you would not know if you were in Doha, Tyson's Corner, or the Northwest Arkansas Mall. Ok, maybe you'd know you weren't in the latter. Villagio is best known for having a canal running down the center and, yes, you can hire a gondola ride. The sky (aka ceiling) above the canal is a light blue, with fluffy white clouds. Hmmm. I haven't seen a real cloud since I've been here.

Villagio does have different wings. I briefly walked through what I call the Cartier wing, where all the Rodeo Drive shops would be located, if the residents of Rodeo had more money. Sports cars are on display. One in particular caught my eye until I calculated that I would have to teach my quantitative methods course 300 times in a row to afford it (if no taxes were taken out of my check, which would be true if I lived here. That's right: Qataris pay no taxes of any kind. I state this with authority as a fact, and I challenge you to prove me wrong...).

Right now I'm one of the few ex-pats who does not have a car. Everyone else rents one. I wish I could say that I walked or biked places, but I don't. It's too hot and there's almost no place to walk. Streets in my neighborhood are lined with apartment complex after complex; each has a security gate and guards. I miss walking, as I've always found it the best way to explore a new location (and old ones, for that matter). Anyway, I'm bumming rides and relying on the kindness of strangers. If I did have a car, I'm sure I'd use it often, and mingle, read, write, and watch less. Thank you Mark, Craig, Vehia, John and the Fox Cab Company for the lifts.

Historically, weather has controlled civilizations and not vice versa. Welcome to Qatar. By law, if the temperature rises above 50 Celsius (122 Fahrenheit), outdoor work must stop. It seems that the locals have found a miraculous way to ensure that the temperature never actually rises that high....

Chaptette 5: Nature and the Machine, Part 1

Doha has at least two ice-skating rinks. One is in a mall, and I'm eager to see it. I'm imagining Qataris in their long black or white robes, gliding smoothly like spirits through air....I wanted to post a YouTube video of the rink here, but I am informed that "This video is not available in your country." I'm guessing the Qatar government is sensitive about appearances.

The other ice rink is in my apartment. I discovered this when I stepped out of the shower onto the floor's glassy marble tiles....

Let me put it this way: My axel turned into a camel.

I witnessed another fall yesterday. I was in the library checking out DVDs for the weekend (Spartacus and The Searchers; more on this later) when a librarian screamed something like "oh my god". One of the staffers had collapsed on the floor. Boy Scout neural pathways kicked in, and I raced over, instructed someone to call 911, except there is no number like that here, or at least no one knew what it was.

Where's the phone book? I opened it, quickly scanned it, found some sort of emergency number. Remembered I didn't know Arabic, and just in case the emergency person only spoke that language, I told another bystander what to say when he called.

No answer. No answer at other numbers he called. So he took off to find a security guard, who might be able to help.

I checked Ira, the staffer who had collapsed. She was unconscious but was breathing and had a strong pulse. She woke up and began vomiting, so I rolled her on her side so she wouldn't inhale it. Gradually, she came to, but was pretty incoherent. After it seemed she was stable, I left because I had to get ready for class and gave them my cell number (as if I knew what to do other than a few simple things). I was assured by then that an ambulance was coming.

Ira is ok and was being held for observation.

Four hours later, one of the emergency lines called back and inquired as to whether there was a problem, perhaps?

Emergency procedures are now being reviewed.

Medical care might not be hot on the scene, but security is otherwise good in "Education City". All drivers entering hand over their driver's license at the first security checkpoint. The GU building has probably two or three security guards at each entrance, and you need a passkey to open the doors. There has never been any kind of incident in the City, as far as I know.

Chaptette 4: Patterns and Randomness

We were less the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and more the Four Riders of the Nautilus. Craig (GU colleague) was running on the treadmill, Susan (South African, Samrya neighbor) was climbing on the Stairmaster, Margarette (unknown origin, probably northern Europe, neighbor) was riding the recumbent bike, and I was on the regular bike. We four looked straight into the mirror comprising the entire opposite wall – if you’ve exercised at a health club, you know this look -- not turning our heads to notice the others. Four sweaty westerners wearing “workout” attire inside; four laborers actually working outside in their heavy overalls. We were riding/running/climbing fast and going nowhere; they were weeding the garden and cleaning the pool. I wonder if we looked like hamsters on a wheel?

There are no doubt many ways to ride an exercise bike, but here are two of them. I could ride as fast or slow as I wished for as long as I wanted (until I was tired, or bored, or jacked up, or whatever). This seems like a pretty good idea. I never do that. Instead, I ride as if I were some sort of machine. My pattern: Pick some “nice” numbers, and meet them. So today I rode 30 minutes, at 100 revolutions per minute, which “took” me 15 kilometers. Very neat. I never ride 27 minutes, at 84 RPM for 11.7K or whatever. Why not?” Somehow this order makes me….satisfied. Until I remembered that I was only being neat in the metric system: under English measurements, I’m riding some weird number of miles. Oh well. Measurements are paradoxical: what appears as a pattern under one system seems random under another.

Do you know Qatari etiquette? When I first got here, I shopped for groceries at the local Mini Mart, and my man Farook there would help me get what I needed. He even said he would be glad to “hook me up” if I didn’t find what I needed. Seriously: he must have been listening to Michael Steele or something. (I was tempted to say “Really? How about Absolut, Marlboros, and “Tiffani”?) Anyway, the Mart has little selection and high prices, so I’ve started grocery shopping at a huge Carrefours. Now I slink by Farook, who is usually smoking cigarettes in the shade outside the shop. Do I need to tell him I ditched him for lower prices and more choice?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Chaptette 3: Data

Dates, actually. Huge clusters cling to the date palms lining the boulevard in the Samrya apartment complex. It occurs to me that 90 percent of the dates I've eaten in my life have been in the form of Fig Newtons. No, that would be figs. So 90 percent in the almond-stuffed dates my mother made for Christmas, which might be 90 percent fictional. But I wonder: Should I pick them? How does one know if they're ripe? Has anyone reading this ever eaten a date fresh from the tree? (If I'm the only reader, the answer would be: no).

You can buy dates, spices, fabric, trinkets, incense, perfume, gold, frankincense, myrrh and pretty much anything else a wise man could want at the old "Souq" marketplace in the Doha city center. The Souq has narrow winding alleys in a maze I doubt a rat with GPS could navigate if a snickerdoodle was the prize. The alleys are just wide enough for two wheelbarrows to pass each other. I know this because the alleys are full of men, often elderly, with wheelbarrows who are ready to be hired to cart your purchases. As I only bought one pound of Sumatran coffee, a hired porter seemed excessive. But maybe I will get used to it. It has become easy to pick up the phone in my office, call the kitchen, and have a staffer (alternately Ransan, Julius, or Mel) bring me a fresh cup of coffee. I do this several times each day.

More data: The NBA playoffs are continuing, and the Lakers beat Denver just last night. I know this because the Philippino selling me Sumatran coffee in Qatar is a big Kobe Bryant fan. He thinks Gilbert Arenas isn't bad, either.

More data: Recent estimates have 1.3 million people living in Qatar, which has grown rapidly in recent years. Of these, 1 million are men and 300,000 are women -- the greatest gender disparity in the planet. I learned this from one of my female students today. It was hard to tell whether she was gloating or concerned.

Yet more: The high temperature in Doha today was 117 Fahrenheit.

In the Souq, the custom is to bargain. I am not good at this. My idea of bargaining is to go to and ask it to give me the lowest priced airfare. Merchants at the Souq reportedly will give you, when asked the price, a number twice as high as the real price they are willing to accept. But here is how this would work for me at the Souq:

Merchant: The price is 1000 Riyal!
Me: Ok.

Maybe I should just stick to picking dates.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Chaptette 2: Dichotomies (it’s all black and white, except when it’s not).

I’m teaching the class “Introduction to Quantitative Methods for International Politics” – basically, a statistics class for which I’m using international data sets as illustrations. (For those who are interested – well, if you’re not interested, skip the rest of this parenthetical statement – I’m mainly using the “World Values Survey” which includes interviews from a random sample some 75,000 people from countries representing 90 percent of the world’s population. I’m learning some interesting stuff from it: for example, over 80 percent of Iranians say that they are willing to fight for their country if it goes to war, and the vast majority of Iranians believe they have from a “moderate” to a “great deal” of freedom. Make what you will of those findings.) About 1/3 of the class (of 25) are Qatari, with the rest coming from other countries in the region and a couple from the U.S.

Ethnic Qatari men dress in their traditional dishdash/gutra – a white full length dress shirt and headdress. Qatari women wear abaya – a long black robe – and a headdress. (Interestingly, I’ve heard that Qataris lead the world in the purchase of cosmetics and perfume. I’ve also read, but cannot personally verify, that affluent young Qatari women are likely to wear the latest international fashions under their abaya.) At first I’ll confess that I found it a bit hard to tell them apart (especially the Qatari women, who tend to sit in a cluster in the back of the room, and my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be) and to learn their names (which are not western, of course) but by the end of the first week I’ve got their names and faces down. They generally come from the most elite families (one of my students is married to the crown prince) and are more-or-less interrelated. They also are interesting and smart…and unpredictable. Two female Qataris (Temador and Maryam) listed “The Godfather” as their favorite movie. Several like hip/hop and blues, as well as traditional Arabic music. The Qatar Foundation (which funds Education City, where Georgetown, Cornell, Texas A&M, and other universities are located) this week is hosting the next in its series of “Doha Debates”: Resolved – Qatari women should be allowed to marry whomever they choose.

The Qataris dress traditionally, and so do my other students: blue jeans, t-shirts, flip flops.

Chaptette 1: Variables

Chaptette 1: Variables

Doha is a series of icebergs connected by blow torches. The forecast high for today is 109 Fahrenheit, and it’s still May – the end of the cool season. Inside, the typical room seems to be about 65 degrees, so when you step outside you face a 40 degree change. Ok, ok, if you step outside in Nome during the winter, you probably have a 100 degree or more change. But you can prepare for the cold by putting on more clothing; it’s difficult to dress for the heat by putting on less, because at some point there’s nothing else to take off, and it doesn’t seem like a good idea to walk around naked unless one is fond of sunburn and moral censors.

So, yes, it’s hot outside. Qatar has the second highest per capita income in the world (after Lichtenstein), so no Qataris or other wealthy foreigners go outside (the Philippino and Indonesian labors do, at least until the temperature reaches 122, when outdoor labor is supposed to stop, although the law doesn’t seem to be vigorously enforced). So Doha is also a string of air conditioned moments. I go from my air conditioned apartment (it took me days to figure out how to adjust the thermostat, until my landlord kindly informed me that I needed to put batteries in the remote control) to an air conditioned car, to my office.

Speaking of cars and variables, Qataris have two driving speeds: morbidly fast and mortally fast. I hear that it has the highest rate of auto fatalities in the world. Big, fast, cars cover the roads (the most popular car seems to be the Toyota Land Cruiser, but there are lots of Porsches, Beemers, Mercedes, etc.) The roads are generally new and excellent except for all the construction zones. The roads do have lines on them; “line control” is optional, however, as cars go anywhere they want. I thought the traffic was pretty bad, but I’m told it’s pretty easy right now because the Qataris are beginning to flee the country for cooler climes (one colleague told me that, after they, they own half of London).

The food I’ve tried has been diverse and oh-so-delicious. Georgetown has a good (and subsidized!...a full meal costs about $3) cafeteria, where most people go for lunch. I’ll typically have some sort of rice dish, maybe with chicken or lamb, a lentil soup or chickpea salad, and so forth. Oh, and a diet Coke. I think Indian food dominates. Last night I went out for dinner with several GU colleagues, and we shared a large plate of mezze (bread with various appetizers like hummus, baba ganoush, olives, taboule, etc) and then Hammour (a wonderful local fish), served grilled with head and tail. Alcohol cannot be bought without a license (you need a permission slip from your employer…but then one is approved to spend up to – get this! – 10 percent of monthly income. Apparently some spend that much, as there is an, um, active “secondary market”.) I’ve not yet tried much bold cooking (major meal: frozen lamb kabobs – I mean they were frozen before I cooked them -- and rice “pilau” style).

My colleague Mark (a Swiss-American specialist in Lebanon) did take me out to the “best” nut market in Doha. (No, a nut market is not a university library.) It had the widest variety of nuts, with the widest variety of flavors (Wasabi! Curry! Mango!) After sampling most of them, I’m heeding my brother-in-law Dick Stark’s advice about potato chips: the perfect ones contain just a bit of salt.