A headline reads “Call to respect culture” in the Gulf Times today.  In the article written about the  Doha International Centre for Interfaith Dialogue the Chairman of the DICID suggests community leaders should do more to better educate their compatriots on the customs, traditions and culture of Qatar so they can better interact with the culture of the host country. 

When asked about the “disengagement felt by expatriate communities” a Muslim scholar in attendance blamed it on expatriates themselves, saying they did not show enough respect to the host nation’s culture. The example he provided was the way expatriates dress.  “Visit any mall and you will see expatriate men in shorts and scantily-clad women”.

I wonder though, if the lack of engagement has anything to do with the opportunity to engage at all?

I read one person’s light and humorous explanation along this line in the book The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. 

It occurs to me that I’ve been in Qatar for several days now and have yet to meet any Qataris.  This is a problem.  My journalistic instincts, honed over two decades, tell me that in order to probe the Qatari soul it might be helpful to speak with actual Qataris.  But where?  The usual journalist’s trick of interviewing the cab driver wasn’t working.  He was invariably from India.   Nor could I interview my waiter (Filipino) or the manager at hotel reception (Egyptian).  No, I needed an introduction, an entrée into this tribal society.

I had a lead.  A phone number for one Sami.  He is a friend of a friend who works at Al Jazeera, the controversial Arabic TV network that’s based in Qatar.  Sami is not Qatari, but I bet he knows some…I  take a sip of lime juice and ask Sami if he could help me meet some Qataris.  You would think I had asked Sami if he could arrange lunch with the queen of England, rather than asking to meet the citizens of the very country I happen to be visiting at the moment……“This is going to be tough, Eric.”

It’s rather difficult to engage with a culture, a people, a society when you don’t have opportunity to do so. I’ve only met one Qatari man ‘socially’ and that’s because he’s married to a friend of mine.  Other than that, I have only ever met Qataris through work situations.  For those I have met, I then needed to navigate my way through some rules of engagement when dealing with them.

Years ago a man from my husband’s office was helping us to settle in Qatar when we first arrived.  He got to be quite friendly with my husband and eventually with our family.  However, when I saw him out one day, it was very clear to me from his body language I was not to speak or make contact with him.  It was such a strange feeling.  I told my husband about the encounter and he told me it would not have been appropriate for him to do so, with me not being in the company of my husband.  Also, this man never once introduced us to his wife, on those occasions she was with him. 

Scanning the Canadian news today, there was an article Veiled Threat: Niqab new flashpoint in tolerance debate that spoke of the laws allowing you to believe whatever you want but society not having the duty to ‘accommodate’ those if they become unreasonable.  Allowing , or not allowing the wearing of veils seems to be a hot topic these days around the globe.

Qatari women all wear the abaya and cover their heads. Whether they cover their faces seems to depend on individual family traditions or requirements.  Some do, others don’t.  I understand the reasons for it, accept it, but it still feels like a barrier between me and the person I’m trying to relate to.  I can’t ‘read’ their facial expressions.  You can get some expression through the eyes I suppose, but that doesn’t tell the full story.  I feel much the same when talking on the phone with someone, or how I may not capture the right tone of a conversation through reading an email. Face to face always works best in my opinion.

The article in our local news went on to quote various statements regarding the possible reasons for disengagement, or solutions to better the situation.  One suggested the abuse of sponsorship here as one of the major obstacles.  Another said they should organize sports competitions between different communities.  Another talked about the alienation felt by many expatriates and then provided statistics that of those visiting the psychiatric hospitals here, 90% were expatriates.  Others urged the teaching of curriculum specific to this, or suggested more expatriates should learn Arabic. 

I don’t know the solution to the problem.  I can only say that living here has provided me the opportunity to meet and learn about so many people, from all over the world.  I’m afraid I haven’t had the same opportunity to meet and learn about the people of Qatar. Unfortunate, really.  However, the fact there was a meeting held here to discuss “Expatriates and Religious Diversity in Qatar” is a step in the right direction and gives me hope for more dialogue, understanding and tolerance of one another in the future.