Themes of the Middle East

I´ve gotten used to a few things after traveling some months in the Middle East. Starting in Lebanon and moving south to the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula in Oman, I now find myself in Arabic Africa, and a lot of familiarities have remained the same.

  1. Islam and the calls to prayer: Without fail, there is always a mosque within sight, a towering minaret hovering over a little village, or a humble little minaret peering between highrises. If you don’t see a mosque, then you most certainly will hear one, during one of their 5 calls to prayer every day, starting before dawn and ending after sunset. The mosques never seem to be in sync either, so during each prayer time the calls echo from street to street or in each neighbourhood a few minutes apart.
  2. Lack of alcohol and pork: Depending on the conservatism of each country, alcohol is either completely illegal, only available with a personal purchasing license, or only sold through western hotels. Pork was just as rare, since its very haraam (forbidden) for Muslims. In Kuwait and Somaliland, you can get hefty fines or even jail time for having a drink. Only in Lebanon, Jordan and Bahrain was alcohol and pork available to anyone (or sometimes only non-Muslims), but still not easy to find.
  3. Cheap gas: the price of gas was a fraction of what it is in Europe, and even more than half the price of North America’s cheap prices. You could fill a sports car with premium gas for $15, or pay only 32 euro cents for a liter of regular gas.
  4. Car friendly, pedestrian hating mobility: Side walks are nearly non-existent, and walking anywhere is weird, since the cities have been built for car traffic or those moving without cars are assumed to be of lower class or less money. Even buses were rare, since public transport would also mean the same, and everyone who’s anyone should be able to afford a car and the cheap gas. This causes a lot of traffic, round-abouts, impassable highways and crazy drivers. And it doesn’t help that they like to drive oversized American SUV’s and Japanese Land Cruisers as if they were in an Aston Martin (this comment applies mainly to Saudi drivers).
  5. Security, Security: The middle east is just as paranoid of terrorism as any European or North American place (if not more), and random searches, road blocks and checkpoints are a regularity. Passing through airport security as a woman was a little less hassling, since we don’t have to strip down to our socks and undershirts, but a handheld metal detector may still scans us before entering a mosque or supermarket. In Somaliland, you need to hire an armed military guard to accompany you on any trips outside of the city capital, Hargeisa.
  6. Endless Construction: Oil money has poured into the Gulf countries, very recently, quickly, and heavily, and its like they don’t know what to do with it other than build and develop. In Kuwait they regularly build something just to rebuild or redesign it, and some can’t build without destroying something first so these places are in a constant dusty state of being torn down and built up. And I mean up, up, up into the sky, sky scrapers that compete to be the tallest in the world. And the places they tear down sometimes have to be cleared to prepare the lot, so rubble is driven out of the city and in Qatar, they’re literally building a mountain out of it.
  7. Over-Perfuming: People literally cover themselves in perfume, and its not just eau de toilette, but ‘oud’, a kind of oil de toilette, so it lingers longer and stronger. It can be suffocating, for the entire time theyre near to you, and even if they’re walking past, a scent will linger, floating behind them for a few metres.
  8. Socializing alone or at home: If it wasn’t for the shisha bars and Starbucks, people would probably just stay at home sending whatsapp messages, both texts and voice recordings, all day long. For those who don’t smoke or have had enough coffee for the day, alot of socialising happens in the privacy of peoples homes. You can order in food, stay comfortably dressed, and hang out with the gays or women that dont seem to show face in the public sphere alone. Since alcohol is a no go, board games are a sort of social elixir, the in thing to do with a bunch of nerds who prefer it to watching any more television (we watch a lot of flat screens and big screens around here).
  9. Fashion: The men wear perfectly pressed, angelic white robes (dishdasha or thawb), with matching head scarves (gutra) crowned with a black rope thingy (ogal). The names change from place to place, as well as the colours (the robes can be shades of beige or grey and the scarves red or black checkered), but its always impressive to see how they flip and fold the ends of their traingular head scarf as if it were an extension of themself, like a head of hair to a woman. Then the women, wear a similar robe but more like a cloak, and usually black, called an abaya. Then they wrap their heads in a hijab, some cover their face below the eyes (a burka), some wear a sort of Zorro mask around their eyes (a nikab), and then there’s those who just drape their whole face with a sheer black sheet so they look like black ghosts floating around from far away. Things started to get a little bit more colourful for the women in the Emirates, and especially Oman, but nothing beats the African Muslim wear of a trillion bright colours adoring their dark, henna-tattooed skin.

 

Qatar under Construction

In the 1960’s, all of the major gulf cities were dusty little villages, with traditional houses made of sand, palm trees, or even wool. When oil money started pouring in, so did the concrete and glass, turning little villages into sky scrapers. Qatar’s capital, Doha, has grown unbelievably fast, and seems to be speeding up, an entire city under construction.

The Pearl, a brand new, man-made neighbourhood

The Pearl, a brand new, man-made neighbourhood

If you search the internet for a picture of Doha in 1979, you’ll see a picture of some tiny, beige, homogenous buildings, with the newly built, pyramid-like highrise Sheraton Hotel looming over them and the sea. If you look for a picture of Doha’s cityscape in 2006, there are just a couple more highrises. Now, there are dozens and dozens of buildings, only 10 years later, with dozens more under construction. They’re not only building but rebuiling, expanding, and creating new spaces to build more. Reclaimed land is the in-thing for all the gulf countries, filling and shaping islands out into the sea and constructing new motorways and sea-side corniches along an ever-expanding coastline. The highways move and grow to fit larger roundabouts or the new skytrain tracks, and left turns barely exist, replaces by u-turns and roundabouts to improve the flow of traffic.

The old and the new, a traditional dhow boat and downtown Doha

The old and the new, a traditional dhow boat and downtown Doha

Doha is still dusty, even more so with all the construction, and they don’t worry about wiping it off. The cars are a little older and well-used than they were in Kuwait, and most trucks and SUV’s have a similar art decal sticker in waves of black or beige along the side which make them look like their all part of the same fleet. I couchsurfed with an Egyptian guy and his English roommate, who had 2 dogs, 2 cats and a horse (!). I managed to talk my way into a ride, and helped her walk the dogs by the beach, only to watch a Qatari guy hit her German Shepherd and drive off. Luckily he was only a little bruised, but the local treatment of animals, specifically dogs, left some distaste in my mouth. Driving in general was pretty bad, like the people who make a left turn from the right-most lane, cutting off 2 or 4 lanes of traffic, and I saw a giant Ford F-150 pummel into a compact Toyota hatchback, crashing them both onto the corniche I was walking on just a few metres away.

Pakistani pirate/CS ambassador and the sink hole

Pakistani pirate/CS ambassador and the sink hole

The Qatar Couchsurf ambassador was kind of like a Pakistani pirate – I’m still not sure what he does but he walks around with one limp leg and crutches, drives off and over massive sand dunes in his 4×4, and gets free tea delivered to his car window from just the honk of his horn. He took me out of town, to see some of the natural sights, including a sink hole and some singing sand dunes. We hung out with his core group of friends, including my host, and I got semi-addicted to watching episodes of Dexter which were always playing in the background. Eating was always an event, a social gathering, and extremely simple – you could order in anything, from shwarma to pizza and Mcdonalds or Subway, and it would get delivered straight to your lap. It was also common not to get out of your car for a corner shop purchase – simply park out front, wait with your window down, and one shop guy would come and take your order, for bottles of water or cigarettes, take your money and bring your change. I heard that even they do home deliveries once in a while, depending on how close you are to your neighbourhood shopkeeper, so in theory you’d never have to leave your house if it wasn’t for work or pets.