A drive down memory lane.
Yesterday we took a drive to Al Khor which is where we lived for the first 2 years of our life in Qatar. To be precise, we lived in the Al Khor Community which is a company-built gated compound 5 min north of the town of Al Khor. The Community has changed since we first moved there. Purpose-built schools, top of the line recreation facilities and restaurants, grocery stores, a post office, hospital, dental clinic. When we arrived, for many of these types of services we had to go into either Doha or Al Khor town.
I distinctly recall my first visit to the grocery store just days after arriving. We drove to the Al Khor Co-op and I headed on in to check things out. It was a foreign land to me. No cans of Campbell’s Tomato soup on the shelves. No Kraft Dinner. No Libby’s beans even. No spices in little bottles. No fresh meat. No fresh vegetables. White, sterile looking bread.
We bought very little. A few canned goods and anything else I could make out to be something we were at all familiar with. There were plastic frozen rolls of what looked to contain ground beef, but on closer inspection it was ground mutton. What is mutton anyways? I didn’t know so didn’t buy any.
Next door to the Co-op was a fruit and vegetable shop. Yes, we could at least buy some bananas, apples, watermelon. Some lettuce, these itty bitty cucumbers, tomatoes. When I went to pay, the storekeeper plopped each bag on a rusted archaic weigh scale, put counter weights on the other side of the scale and quickly scribbled a number down on a piece of scrap paper. It probably added up to about QR 48 or something like that, which is about $14. I wondered how he priced it all so quickly. My skeptical side then wondered if he was ripping me off as I had no idea what the prices were, or how much I had bought.
The city of Doha wasn’t all that far away from where we lived. A 40 minute drive at that time. But the old North Road was the only highway to and from Doha back then and extremely dangerous to say the least. Plus, there were no maps back then, no street names, no sign posts. The first time I went to the city on my own some friends drew me a map. It looked something like this.
I had only to travel down the highway, go straight through 5 roundabouts and at the next roundabout would land at the one and only westernized shopping mall at the time. The Mall had a ‘real’ grocery store (I guess it’s okay to call yourself THE mall, when you’re the ONLY mall) . Again, not many brands were familiar to me as most were from the UK, but they appeared to be somewhat similar to what I was used to. There were a few kinds of Campbell soups on the shelves, Kellogg’s cereals, Kraft cheeses, fresh meat from New Zealand and a lovely bakery. Also in The Mall were clothing stores, eyewear shops, etc. but much too expensive, I thought, to ever actually shop in.
But back to the streets of Al Khor.
When we first arrived, familiar North American outlets like KFC and a Baskin Robbins were available. So, some signs from home. Now, I see McDonald’s has arrived.
However, it soon came to be that our favorite meal was from Cafeteria Kafaif, or Al Kafaif as we used to call it. It’s moved locations 3 times having expanded over the years, but can still be found on the same street. Still the same owners. They had the most fantastic arabic/turkish food and we could feed our family of 5 for about $15. Fresh chicken kebabs, salad, mixed mezzehs and warm turkish bread. Language was somewhat of a barrier to begin with, but as in any small town once the staff got to know you they could place our usual order upon seeing our faces, or hearing our voice over the telephone.
The same street was where youngest son first experienced the slaughtering of a live chicken. He and dear husband were walking down the street and saw through the storefront live chickens wandering the dirt floor. Dear son was curious so they stepped inside, … just as a chicken was killed. Let’s just say it was not a pretty sight and he was quite upset by what he witnessed. We joke about it now – ‘damaged for life’ we say to him.
We continued our drive down main street to see if much else had changed. It hadn’t. Doha has changed, grown, and modernised tremendously over the past 10 years but other than a few new fast food outlets and a couple of new grocery stores, Al Khor remains much the same. There are new housing developments but the services are not quite there yet, on the same scale as the city.
Of course, like anywhere here there is a mosque on every block ….
The old gas station in Al Khor. Off in the areas behind the gas station is where many of the laborers live. It’s there where I first witnessed exactly how they live here. In tiny, run-down, cramped rooms. How the ‘other half ‘ are housed. A stark contrast to how expats like us are accommodated by our employers.
We passed by one of the landmarks along the water-front. Back then, my driving was all done navigating directions according to landmarks. I learned to make a right past this landmark, to get to the Co-op and main street.
Towards the end of our short drive we came upon what then had become my ‘preferred’ fruit and veggie store. This small shop used the same type of counter-balance scales as the one next to the Co-op. It was all so unfamiliar at first, but once I became a regular customer the staff were so kind and ready to help. I learned to trust in them and what they were charging me, using those old scales to figure it all out. I would pick through the bananas that weren’t looking so great trying to find the best of the lot, and they would signal for me to come to the back of the store, open up a new box and hand me a fantastic, healthy looking bunch. They would help me to choose a perfectly ripe watermelon when I didn’t quite know how to.
I was hoping my visit today would allow me a picture of the old scales…. as a keepsake of days gone by. However, pulling up I could instantly see the store had modernised. It was busy! Packed full of shoppers buying their goods before the shop closed mid-day for Friday prayers.
Gone were the weigh scales of old, replaced by a newer electronic version. Also new to the store was a refrigerator which held the more specialised, delicate goods like strawberries and some baby corn for stir fries. Back in the good old days when I used to shop there, you could only find the basics. Nothing so out-of-the-ordinary as baby corns or fresh berries.
Progress. It’s great in so many ways. I am thankful for the manner in which Qatar has grown and modernised. It’s become somewhat more efficient. It makes our life easier, more accommodating perhaps. But I’m glad I was able to experience some of it’s old ways which made our life here the adventure we had hoped to experience.
Why would there ever be a need to travel for the adventure it brings, if we all have the same things? Live life the same way?
Though I miss Canada, the last time I was there I felt a blandness about it. For such a huge expansive country, it didn’t much matter if I was in BC, Alberta or Ontario as each city looked somewhat the same. Many of the stores were the same. Many of the restaurants were the same. What makes the world so interesting is that it’s all so diverse.
I need to be reminded of that when I’m complaining about not being able to find cranberries and pumpkin pie filling at Thanksgiving. Maybe while I’m here it needs to be replaced by some Umm Ali and a whole roasted Lamb.