Sunday, May 30, 2010

Day 15: Normally Different

Which bird is most normal: a robin, a pink flamingo, or a tuxed-out penguin? Oh, it's too hard to trick you, as you know the right answer is "a robin". Unless you happen to be living in the coldest place on earth, in which case you might conclude that, well, the only bird you ever see is a penguin, so that must be what birds look like. Or unless you are a penguin (are you?). Seeing the world in black and white, penguins might look at robins (probably only on Discovery Channel, although I don't think there is a March of the Robins documentary) and think: punks. And Pink Flamingos is a movie by John Waters, and it (the movie, not Waters) has been described as "outrageously sick, disgusting, and grotesque...but also funny". Wait: that does describe Waters. As for the real flamingos, I mean the fake ones, it seems odd that they have become the iconic trailer park decoration, as they look like they would be more comfortable hanging around with RuPaul than Ron Paul, if you know what I mean. But you get my main point, or you should, to the extent that I have one, if you're paying the least bit of attention: normal is what we're used to. Or to what we are used. Which doesn't sound normal, correct as it may (or may not) be.

Now, what does a bike instructor look like? Exactly. Focused. Stern. Hawklike. Commanding respect from the other students, so that even those standing next to him feel compelled to salute.
Just kidding. Despite my cool demeanor, I was crazy nervous about riding in the "First Ever Officially Sanctioned Mid-East Schwinn Indoor Bike Mini-Marathon" (I think that was the event's name and, if not, I'm still going to call it that). What I needed to calm my nerves was a Heinekin. Or, even better, a Pabst Blue Ribbon. I really hope you are tempted to click on at least one of the three links above, and to increase your temptation I'll just mention that they are very very profane, so don't click if you are offended by offensiveness or if you think Dennis Hopper (RIP) was a virtuous guy. Yeah Blue Velvet was one crazy movie.

The two actual instructors (guides? trainers?), for the marathon, Luz and Carmen, were only mildly crazy. Carmen is in Doha by way of Germany and although she worn a dirndl to the event, she did not actually wear it while riding (sissy). Luz comes from one of those countries -- I hear there are many -- where Spanish is spoken, and I hope she tells me which one it is, so I can give her homeland proper credit. Both Luz and Carmen have the ability to ride really fast (on a stationary bike) for a really long time while being really really positive and motivational and all that and really not getting out of breath and really making me think I could do it too.
They were so good, they made me feel like I could fly. Which I did.
They could not, alas, keep my butt from getting chapped. The mini-marathon consisted of a 45 minute "spin" class, led by Luz (perky! motivational! fast! relentless!), a break for bananas and dates, another 45 minute spin, led by Carmen (bubbly! sprightly! ferocious!), another break for more bananas and dates, and then a final long ride (I almost choked when Luz told me...."I have a surprise for you! The last leg will be a two hour ride!" My gonads immediately shrank with trepidation....). For better or worse (in sickness and health) I was loving and cherishing the fact that we ran out of time before I ran out of gas: the last leg was only about an hour. I made it.

Was this an event, or was it a cult meeting? You be the judge. I'm just saying, when Carmen said: "Sie mussen salut!" (German scholars: yeah, I know that's not the correct translation, but I wanted to make it's meaning obvious in English) that's exactly what we did.

We saluted from our knees, too, and we liked it. Except for the two "white shirts" who were quickly culled from the herd.
Kidding. They weren't culled, just "re-educated". After all, Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.

Rosie, the rebellious one behind and to the left of (compliant) me, is from Malaysia, leads spin classes, likes champagne (yes, she was quite clear that she was a Muslim and liked the bubbly), and is married to the Dude who is I think the head economic advisor to the Emir. She's the kind of person, if there is such a kind, who will casually mention over lunch (and champagne, hers not mine, as I was having a lemon mint drink) that oh, yeah, her husband just flew in Jeffrey Sachs (an economist twice listed by Time magazine as one of the 100 most important people in the world) for a bit of convo on the economic situation in Qatar. She is sitting between me and Carmen (again, in dirndl) at our post-marathon pasta fest.

Ahmed, from Egypt, is on the far right. He also teaches spin classes, which apparently are one of the main commercial activities in Doha. He is not a terrorist, and certainly not dead one.

Marvin, Luz's husband, is on my right. She told him that he wore the wrong shirt to lunch. He/Luz are in Doha as he is one of the project leaders (I'm not sure if he is a muckety-muck, a muckety, or some other rank) for the construction of the new international airport, which is a project of less economic importance than the spin classes.

Marvin and I are doing the "we just met" dance. Where are you from? I ask.

Marvin: South central Virginia.

Mark: Oh, really? Where?

Marvin: Near Roanoke.

Mark: Really? Where? (Apparently, all the biking also shrank my vocabulary.)

After 7 or 8 more of my "20 questions" I learn that Marvin grew up very close to Laura/my vacation home where the Blackwater River flows into Smith Mountain Lake. This is rural Virginia, folks. Flamingos on front lawns, holding Confederate flags.

Yeah, I met my neighbor in Doha. How normal is that?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Day 14: Differences are.....

Is there an Arabic radio station named "Chuck"? I don't mean Chuck literally, because if the station was Arabic I'm assuming it would have an Arabic name. Maybe Waleed, or Hadi, or Mubarak. If so, I hope the listeners are as annoyed as I get when the station I'm tuned to says "You're listening to Chuck (or Fred, or Donna) radio." WTF. Do the station programmers think that Chuck and I are going to be buddies, playing beer pong or something? Does Chuck want me to be his wingman? Is Chuck going to keep playing Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" even though I stopped believing that song was any good the first time I heard it?

I suppose radio programmers in the US are trying to have it both ways. They give their stations familiar names to make them feel familiar (and trusted, and reliable, and so forth, unless you actually know a Chuck, and he was a Dick, which might lead you to want to punch Chuck radio in the kisser). Then they say...."Oh, Chuck is different...Just like you. Your songs. Your way" to remind us how unique we are, except for the fact that we're pretty predictable, and Chuck's programmers know what we buy, what we wear, what we drive, and what music we like (and it's not "Don't Stop Believing," which is why I turned Chuck off).

I've mainly been listening to FM 102 (let's call this Hadi radio), with some FM 99 (Mubarak radio) thrown in. I like Hadi and Mubarak a lot, as both mainly play Arabic music, which I find sonically fascinating and cool. I do have two confessions, though: a) all the songs sound alike; b) I can't tell the stations apart. I assume that locals would be aghast at this confession, because: a) each song is different; b) the stations are undoubtedly distinct.

What is different to locals is the same to me, not because I'm an idiot -- I baldly assert -- but because I don't have enough knowledge to make the distinctions. You probably know the feeling, too, when you hear someone say: "All [fill in the blank: rap, country, bluegrass, blues, folks, rock, classical, opera, jazz] music sounds alike" and you think: "'re an idiot." (Ok, maybe I am.)

It's a little hard for me to identify by name the females in my class who are wearing a sheyla (black head scarf) and abaya (long black robe), as I'm accustomed to using hair and clothing to distinguish between individuals. But walking around the Souq (the old market area) last night, I saw four Anglo men sitting together. All were roughly in their 40s, with shaved heads, and sort of khaki clothing. I'm guessing the locals couldn't tell them apart either.

To know my students better, I've been studying the printed "facebook" (no connection with the website) for the Qatar campus. The students/faculty/staff can list their birthplace, hobbies and favorite books, music and movies. Here's a sample of their features

Birthplace Hobby Book Music Movie

Afghanistan Cricket Classical The Matrix
Lebanon Hanging out Pride & Prejudice
Egypt Careless Love Old stuff Rendition
Bangladesh Theater Girls of Riyadh Braveheart
Kuwait "The Office" Harry Potter Guitar hero Dumb and Dumber
USA Football Ab-elmajeed 300
Bahrain Painting Oryx and Crake The Godfather
Palestine Tennis The Alchemist Josh Groban The Notebook
Qatar Biking Hearn's Trilogy Sarah Brightman Breakfast Tiffany's

You get the idea. You just can't always tell by looking what people like, or what they are like. Maybe we are predictable and unique.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Day 13: Normal is....

Bear Grylls has nothing on me. We both know how to survive by chewing on moxie, sipping dauntlessness mixed with a dash of spunk, and making our beds from nothing more than wit, pluck, and guts. Yeah, and we sleep in the bed we made.

We're a tough breed. In the 12 days after I arrived here, I survived -- verily, thrived -- without using a cell phone, credit card, or TV. (Oh, wait: Bear didn't do that.)

Yesterday I could go on no something.....

[Insert TV commercial here. A happy song is playing, and a happy family is dancing in a happy meadow...
Voiceover: Hello, this is your dear friend Citibank. Because we value you and your family so much, we are going to raise your APR from 9.9% to 29.9% in order to better serve you!]

I'd like to say this is why I haven't been watching TV or using my credit card, but that's not quite true. I can't find the remote -- I think I left it somewhere in my office building my first day here when they issued it to me -- and, well, hell, I don't feel like screwing with it anyway. I did cancel my Citi card -- and I encourage you to do so too, and to take your money out of the too-big-to-fail banks and deposit it in a local community bank. Anyway, I've been relying on my ATM card and the fast wireless for all my cash and entertainment needs. No, not that kind of entertainment: Qatar blocks those sites, remember? I've been reading lots of reader comments to political posts (Politico, Washington Post, Huffington, etc.) and this I know: most of the posters are unhinged. I didn't use my cell because I didn't have anyone to call.

Until last night. I wanted to leave this desert and visit another one -- and, at the same time, to travel to places that sounded like tag lines from the Simpsons, so my best option was to fly from "Doh!" "Ha!" to "Oh! Man!" (Mark, Mark, don't go all Al Gore here and explain in a patronizing way that this means from Doha (Qatar) to (Musqat) Oman. Too late.)

Why else do I want to fly to Oman, you might ask?

To find some Musqat love! ("Musqat Suzy, Musqat Sam, do the jitterbug in Musqat land...")(Al Gore: Musqat is the capital of Oman.)

If you know the Captain and Tennille version of this song, the least you can do to atone is to buy -- at whatever price -- one of the world's best albums, by the Willis Alan Ramsey, an incredibly talented songwriter who did make this one big, stinking and flaming bag of a mistake.

So. I try to buy the ticket online...and my card is rejected. I'm used to rejection, so I tried again. And again. Qatar Airlines sent me the auto-response "Are you stalking me? I said NO!"

Then I remembered that when I got to Qatar my credit card company (did I mention that it was not from those SOBs at Citibank?) had called to tell me that my card had been blocked because I had the audacity to use it, which I kind of thought was the point of having it, although I appreciate that their surveillance system had learned that someone -- probably an identity thief -- had the cojones, or its Arabic equivalent, which I couldn't find on google, which is a shame because everything should be available there, was testing their system by buying a book, which turned out to be a so-so thriller, although I felt compelled to read the whole thing, at an airport in England, which is where I transferred while coming here, unfortunately not with enough time to visit the Virgin Lounge, which has the best eggs benedict I've ever had at a layover at an airport.

Anyway, my credit card had been blocked. I thought I had fixed the problem on Day 1 but, since I had not used my card since then, apparently I had not. Which may explain why my car rental company was getting just a little curt with me (ha! my brother is nicknamed "Little Curt"), as it had submitted my monthly charge to the credit card company day after day, and each day the charge was denied, despite my assurances that everything was ok.

So, I had to use my cell to call the credit card company to clear things up. Which I did. They didn't really ask me, but I told them that Citibank sucks.

I did have to call the company back when I discovered that ALL the rental car charges had been posted to my account. Nothing quite like the thrill of paying $600+ each day for 8 consecutive days or so to rent a Mitsubishi Lancer for a month...

I still haven't used my TV, though I did think about using my cell and card to order a new remote so I could use it, which would have been a triple-play of technological catching up.

You've read this far, if you are still reading, so I owe you something a little special: another spill shot. Not ketchup. Not mustard. Not vaseline (again). In trying to put sunblock on my back, I poured a bunch in my hand and tried to sneak around my body and catch my back by surprise. Instead, I threw it on the door instead. An evocative picture, I think. Don't you?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Day 11: No Pain, No Gain?

The Orgasm Pill is safe and effective; it has no side-effects. It guarantees all of the pleasure, with none of the potentially painful regrets, anxious worries, or awkward good-byes!

[Reader advisory: This post is more about suffering than sex, so proceed at your own risk.]

So, I asked my class, should such a drug be approved? Should we seek to design it? If we had it, would you take it?

I didn't quite use those exact words, but I'm pretty confident my students (they're smart) got the drift. The (much) broader question was: We want public policies to reduce suffering and increase happiness, don't we? Each time policies do this, we consider them successful....but how far should we go?

Yesterday, I learned that electricity and water are free to all Qatari citizens. That's right: free. They can use all they want -- Endless hot showers! Toilet flushing party games! Let's turn the AC on and open the windows! -- without any negative consequences, at least for the individuals doing the consuming. Scarcity has been eradicated; abundance abounds. Paradise, no?

Forget for the moment that this can't last forever. Nothing ever does. And remember that going without electricity makes life harder, and going without water makes it impossible. So kudos to the Qatari government for providing citizens unlimited amounts of these good things.


There were some murmurs from the students as we discussed this. No, they didn't really think that the policy of free "juice" should be extended to all people in the country (Americans tend to think similarly regarding the goods that their government provides). No, they didn't necessarily think that "getting something for nothing" was always a good thing.

Which almost brings us back to the Orgasm Pill (in fact, the example I used was a diet pill that allowed you to eat whatever you wanted -- anyone for a double order of the KFC double-down sandwich? -- without gaining weight or feeling ill). Cue the fireworks.

The students seemed to think that "the bad should come along with the good". Pain and suffering are what make us human, after all. More precisely, it is the recognition that we will experience pain and suffering that is our defining characteristic. Eliminate those things, and we are....well, what are we then?

Hmm. In the abstract ("posing a gotcha hypothetical") I might agree with this, so let me ask and answer some specific questions; I encourage the reader to do the same. Throughout human history, childbirth has been accompanied by great pain for the mother and the high odds that the baby would die: that was all a "natural" part of humanity.

Mark: If you could make pregnancy risk free, would you?
Mark: Yes.

Mark: If you could eliminate pain from childbirth, would you?
Mark: Yes.

Mark: If you could guarantee that your child -- all children -- would be born healthy, would you?
Mark: Yes.

Those who wish suffering for themselves can have it: it's all yours. Those who wish other people to experience pain: cut it out.

I offer no compelling finale. The (conceptual) Orgasm Pill...would I want it? Sure. Should I take it? Hmmm....

Monday, May 24, 2010

Day 7, Part 3: Round and Round My Car and Mind Go....

Doha has no forks in the road; it has only sporks. Or so we culinary anthroadologists call them. Known prosaically as "traffic circles" in the US, here they more poetically are called "roundabouts". Roads generally come from four directions, with drivers merging into the circle when they can and then exiting where they want or, if they are like me and don't know where they want to exit, they start singing with Billy Preston "here we go round in a circle..." American roads usually have intersections, with stoplights. I don't know a colloquial term for such intersections, so let's just call them CFs (which is short for what rhymes with "bluster ducks"). You know what I mean. I'm guessing that many of us have used our cells at some jammed intersection to report "It's a total CF here."
It's time for some truth telling here. Doha roundabouts are more American than CFs, and it's time we get with the program and begin claiming roundabouts as our own, as if we invented them (which, um, we didn't, even in Pierre L'Enfant's original design for Washington, D.C.)

Here's why:

1. Roundabouts are more efficient than CFs. As a traffic engineer as well as a anthroadologist, you're just going to have to trust me on this. Think of it this way. At roundabouts, you never wait unnecessarily: if there is an opening, you enter. At CFs, you must wait if you have the red light, even if no one else is there.

2. Roundabouts are more fair than CFs. In public places, the general and sensible rule is "first come, first served". If you don't agree with this, just try cutting into the front of the line for coffee at Starbucks or for the bathroom at Fedex Field. Good luck. Roundabouts are totally first come, first served. CFs, not so. And who doesn't know that feeling of sitting at a long stop light while some Juanita-come-lately on the cross street simply drives up and drives through! The injustice!

3. Roundabouts have more freedom than CFs. At roundabouts, you are always free to enter (it might not always be wise to do so but, hey, it's the drivers' call). At CFs, in contrast, The Man says "You can go when I say so. You must stop when I give the signal." Talk about Big Brother or, in my case Big Sister (hey, Cristine!). Worse, The Man tempts you to cheat ("Go ahead....the light is red but no one is watching...are they? Go for won't get caught....will you?) Increasingly, Big Sister is literally watching you by posting cameras, so she can catch you breaking the rules she imposed.

On behalf of liberty, equity, and efficiency, we the people should demand that our Great Nation return to its original principles and The Founders' clear intent that we are based on roundabout values.

The other day Laura commented that I was behaving stranger than usual, for which the only reasonable response is "How strange am I usually?"

Oh. There is no Day 7, Part 2. Considering that I originally wrote Part 1 on Day 8, and today is Day 10, I don't have any problem skipping Part 2. Do you?

I go back and forth on font sizes. Do you prefer small, normal, or large?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Day 7, Part 1: Slower Pace, Less Pressure?

Is it too slow to go a week without buying the toilet paper I probably should have bought on my first day here? I mean, it's not like I didn't try to buy some. What I thought was a standard "four pack" (same size, same shape) of TP ended up being a two roll pack of paper towels.

So, I've been making do. In fact, I've been feeling downright Brawny™ with this purchase.

The paper towels did come in handy yesterday. I've pretty much been dining on local fare and thought a turkey and cheese sandwich, with a spot of mayo on one side and a dab of mustard on the other, sounded just the ticket. Spot on, and all that. After pulling the shrink wrap off the mustard jar (my apartment had been stocked with condiments and what not, except for the toilet paper), I gave the bottle a squeeze, and a few watery drops came out. Right, I forgot to shake it, so I did. I squeezed harder, and nothing else came out.

A little more pressure. Still nothing.

I squeezed just a wee little bit harder.

That's when I learned that mustard bottles here don't have screw tops; they have friction tops. If you squeeze hard enough, the lid will blow off. And mustard will cover everything, including my new shirt and shorts (not pictured). Yes, I think my shirt/shorts would be covered even if, as I suggested above, you were the one doing the squeezing.

I would have thrown my clothes into the washer/dryer immediately, but it (they?) had caught fire that morning so I thought this would be imprudent.

The mustard smell did help cover the rose smell, which I had sprayed liberally (I mean "socialistically") around my kitchen to cover the burning appliance smell.

Which begs the question: When exactly does a, um, "bachelor" do his laundry? When he has no more clean clothes. Bachelors, go ahead and say "duh". Hand washing, to thee I pledge.

Helpful travel hint: After wringing the water out of your clothes, lay them out flat on a towel. Next, roll the towel up. Finally, just stomp on it. This relieves frustration at the same time it dries the clothes out remarkably well. Try it sometime, if you need such relief.

Life is slower here -- at least if my toilet paper purchases are a barometer (and if barometers measured speed). Still, it might be helpful, at times, to apply less pressure.

To be continued.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Day 5: Absurdist Tragicomedy

"I don't where the sunbeam ends and the starlight begins, it's all a mystery."
"I don't know how man decides what's right for his own life, it's all a mystery."

It may be tragic or comic, but it's no doubt absurd for a 52 year old man to begin a blog post with lyrics from the Flaming Lips Fight Test. (Just click on the link to hear the song. While you're there, go ahead and listen to She Don't Use Jelly, too)

Doesn't my eye look yummy? So off to the health clinic I went. The results? I quickly filled out a one page form. I saw a (female Muslim) doctor within about 5 minutes. (I'm not sure why I feel compelled to report the doctor's religion and gender, but I do.) I was out the door, prescriptions in hand, in 15. There was no charge. Zilch. Zero.

This was socialized medicine. "Qatar now has a public health service providing free or very low cost health care for its nationals, and it's important to note that these services are also available to expatriates." This site also notes that "eye infections are common". Ok, ok, I'm not saying that all socialized medicine works well, and it's clear that in Qatar it works better to handle routine treatment than specialized care; Qataris do fly elsewhere for specialized treatment.

This was civilized medicine. Of course, it does help that the country is awash in oil money. But it does seem pretty reasonable to me that ordinary medical care is provided to all residents.

I did have to pay for the prescriptions: about $20, which can be covered by private health insurance.

I also taught my final class of the week (classes run Sunday-Thursday here). Every Thursday we are going to watch films (slacker alert); today we watched an episode from "Ethics in America," a series produced about 15 years ago. Each episode contains a Socratic discussion, with the moderator posing tough questions to prominent officials (e.g., Jeanne Kirkpatrick -- former Georgetown professor! -- was the President. Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani were both in their younger, and much more sensible, days). The focus was on "trust".

Afterwards we had our own Socratic dialogue. I said: "I have to trust you; you have to trust me. So what would you do if you found out that one of your classmates was cheating by having someone else write their papers?"

Student question: What is my relationship with the cheater?

My answer: Well, I'm going to assume you're not going to tell on a close friend or relative, so let's say it's just a classmate. Let's also say that you can report this to me anonymously by leaving a note in my mailbox. Now, what would you do?"

The class voted 12-1 that they would not report the cheating.


Their explanations: It's not my job. I don't want to be a snitch. Who's really hurt? And so forth.

More wows from me. (Disclosure: similar questions have produced similar answers from my US students.)

I know it may be trite to repeat the quote that "all it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing" but that is definitely my depressing conclusion. Damn. But I wonder what I would do in that situation....

My blogs grow heavy, I fear.

Back to absurdist tragicomedy. That's the description of the play "Rosencrantz and Gilderstern are Dead," which I hope to see tomorrow night. R&G are two minor, confused characters -- I can relate! -- from Hamlet. To buy the tickets, I have to visit the Bellagio Mall, which has canals, with gondoliers, running through it: the ceiling is painted blue with puffy white clouds. Venice comes to the Gulf!

Random facts: My students' names are Noor, Abdullah, Hassan, Nouf, Jumana, Abdulrahman, Hissa, Maryam, Haya, Fatima, Fatima, Ghehad, Manal, and Saran.

More: My blood pressure was 110/80 and my pulse was 64. Immortality no doubt awaits.

So we're watching the movie and a very handsome and very buff guy enters and sits. He is wearing a tight black t-shirt and is jacked. I have no idea who he is but, hey, we're watching in the student lounge, so it could be just about anybody. During the discussion, another student says something like "Why don't you ask Hassan?"

It's Hassan, one of my students! In every other class, he has been wearing a full white robe and white headdress. I didn't recognize him out of uniform. I did want to ask him...

"What is it, casual Thursday for Muslims?"

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Day 4: Mirage or Reality?

"Life does not consist mainly -- or even largely -- of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one's head."
- Mark Twain, Autobiography

The desert weirds your mind. My mind, anyway. Or maybe it was driving my car, AC blasting, along the desert road. Now, Qatari drivers are notorious for being aggressive and fast. But as I cruised I seemed to be keeping a safe distance from me. No honking. No tailgating. No cutting me off. Huh. Why? Is it because, as a clearly identifiable representative of the hetero-normative, white dominant, gender encoded, hegemonic American regime (as the scholars would say or, more simply as the fabulous band Majestic Twelve writes in the song, Condoleeza Check My Posse, which you really should check out, "I'm straight and white and male American and free"), the other drivers were graciously deferring to me? Not likely. Is it because they can see I'm a foreigner and, as everyone knows, foreigners can't drive? Perhaps. Is it all just the storm of thoughts blowing through my head?


Naturally, I was immediately tailgated, honked on, and cut off.

But, things do happen in the desert. My bald head is exceptionally dry, for example. Buying some body lotion at the store, however, made me face some existential choices: specifically, I could choose between lotion for "normal" skin, "dry" skin, or "sensitive" skin (not counting all the various flavors of each type). But I'm normal! Does normal skin even need lotion? And, in fact, my scalp is both dry and sensitive! What to do? WWJD?

The choices left me in tears. My eyes were literally watering. And reddening. And hurting. And more of each throughout the evening. My conclusion: I have conjunctivitis. Pink eye. WebMD helpfully tells me that this could be caused by a) viruses; b) bacteria; c) allergies; d) irritations. I want to check e) all of the above as my eyes are killing me. They feel like a size 8 shoe on a size 12 foot. They look like I'm now wearing the tux I wore to the senior prom: tight and hideous. If I don't look like the Great Satan, I do resemble Satan's spawn.

Pre-demonic, I took a chance in yesterday's class and discussed abortion (although I'm not censored any way at school, I do want to find topics that are useful and appropriate, so I had been reading up on abortion policy in Islamic countries.) I began by noting "This topic is extremely controversial in the US, with some people holding views that abortion should be totally banned, and others believing that the right to choose is absolute. Is it controversial in your country? (Note: I've now learned that six of my students are from Qatar, and eight are from other countries throughout the middle east; all, as far as I know, are Islamic.) The students overwhelming concurred: not controversial. I then posed what I think are some of the hardest questions for the ardent pro-life and pro-choice positions, and tried to expose the weaknesses in each....

As it turns out, abortion is not completely banned in Qatar: exceptions are made if the pregnancy threatens the life, physical health, or mental health of the mother (if verified by two doctors) or if the fetus has severe birth defects. Abortion is not allowed from cases of rape (and it's not clear about incest, although I'm guessing that might fall into the "mental health" category). Abortion is available on demand in Bahrain (a one hour flight from Qatar, about the same flight time from South Dakota to Minnesota). Indeed, policies vary across Islamic countries; yes, they differ. So Qatar has more strict policies than the US, to be sure, but they hardly reflect an absolutist position.

It seems that anyone imagining that Islamic countries are alike, and extremist, is buffeted by a desert storm of thoughts, more mirage than reality.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Day 2: No Beep

It was like the dog that didn't bark. This morning I hopped in my Mitsubishi Lancer (paid product placement!), slipped in the key, and turned it on (Lucky Lancer). I had not yet buckled my seat harness....

And there was silence. That's right, in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, when you start your car you hear that "beep, beep, beep" which means: "I'm going to annoy you until you buckle up. It's for your own good." Much like my blessed mother telling me to put my jacket on, when I was 6 years old (or 36). But now I'm apparently living in the Land of the Wheeee! I'm actually free to drive without protection! Oh, sweet liberty! But don't worry, friends, I buckled up you might recall from last year's blogs (more product placement! You *must* read them!), Qatar has one of the highest motor fatality rates in the world, as traffic laws are treated as mild suggestions. I don't plan to be one of those fatalities but, then again, I suppose no one plans that.....

Ahh, but even here there are limits to freedom. If you drive over the highest posted limit (I believe is is 120 KPH (about 75 MPH) then your car will begin...beeping. And beeping. And beeping. Human ingenuity is marvelous, though, so I'm guessing there is a thriving market for disabling said beepers ("Jeepers! No Beepers! Our Business Is Yours For Keepers!)

So the US tries to keep us safe from DWOP (driving without protection) and Qatar tries to keep us safe from speeding. The same value -- protecting the driver -- with two different tools. And you know what? I'm guessing American drivers would more willingly accept the former than the latter. Driving with belts may be smart, but driving like a rocket is our divine right. The more that I think about it, though, the smarter the Qataris seem to be about this. Seat belt laws are designed to protect us from ourselves, while the Qatar laws are designed to protect us from others. I don't know about you, but I'm more interested in being protected from the other guy than from myself. Yet sometimes I do wonder which person is more likely to harm me....

Back in my apartment, I try again to free the key that is jammed into my locked balcony door. I fiddle with it. I jiggle it. I tug and pull. I give up and call maintenance. The guy comes over, walks in, and immediately pulls it out. Oh. I wonder if he is thinking "That guy sure looks sharp in his starched shirt and silk tie, but he can't even pull a key out of a lock." Education is valuable, no doubt, but right now I'm thinking that this worker was pretty damn valuable, too.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Day 1: An Unusual Visitor

A dishwater sky greeted me on my first morning back in Doha. Dishwater, actually, only if I had washed my boots in the sink. Brownish. What I imagined mustard gas would look like if it were made from cumin instead of mustard.

Holy F, I said to the nobody else in my apartment. Flipping on my computer (which was acting as a very expensive clock), I saw: 9.42 a.m. My ride was supposed to be here at 8.30. My class started at 10....

False (non) alarm. My MacBook had tricked me into thinking I was in a time zone several zones away. After quick clicks: ahh, only 5.42. So my recurring panic dream of sleeping through my first day of class was just that, except that this time I was actually awake. For a few minutes, anyway.

It's weird being back in Doha. I'm in the exact same apartment, and it felt a little Ground Hog Day to me. Looking in the mirror, I did see Bill Murray looking back at me, although it was the more recent haggard version. Jet lag will do that.

Later, walking across the street from my office to the ATM machine, the big pipeline in the sky opened up. Not exactly a BP gusher ("It's only 5000 gallons a day! No, wait, perhaps much more than that, but it's not important, and anyway it's not our responsibility!) but enough to soak me. Who says it never rains in southern California? Or Doha, in May?

I'm here to teach the course "Ethics and Values in Public Policy", so these blogs are likely to have my ethical reflections. At the ATM, I remembered this saying:

"It rains on the just and unjust alike, but the Unjust fella has the Just's umbrella"

Although the rain visited me (the acres of astroturf on campus got a good washing), my students did not. Of the 14 students in my class this morning, only six showed up. Yikes. I sent out a gentle reminder that it is their ethical responsibility to, well, show up or let me know. We'll see what tomorrow holds.....

This class is going to be....interesting. I'm using "clicker" technology (I've given the students hand held voting devices) so I can do instant polling in the class (the votes appear on the computer projector). I had them vote on some options for the class, and then asked them "Do you prefer that your votes matter, or are you better off having an authority (in this case, me) make the decisions for you? By a two-thirds margin, they voted that their votes should matter.....quite striking in, as Wikipedia calls it, an "absolute monarchy" (there are municipal elections, and women do have the right to vote and otherwise participate in political affairs). I'll carefully consider how to discuss "human rights," because while Qatar is fairly liberal for an Islamic country, homosexual relations are subject to as much as five years in prison, and "apostasy" is punishable by death (although there are no known executions for it).

We'll consider a simple example tomorrow: Should we have rules about laptop use in our class, or should the students be free to do whatever they want (when I see my students madly typing, I'm on pretty solid grounds assuming that they are updating their Facebook)?

Now, time to update MY Facebook, even if Betty White thinks it "is a huge waste of time...."

My alarm is now set.