Connect the Cultures’ silent partner, an American, traveled to the Arabian Gulf country of Qatar on business this spring, just six weeks before the day that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, the UAE and Bahrain made the shocking announcement that they were severing diplomatic ties with the country. Had Qatar been cut off from these other Middle Eastern countries before my partner’s trip, his company told him that they would not have sent him. Fortunately, he got to spend 12 days in a land about which most people know nothing.
When you hear terrible things about a certain part of the world, usually the Middle East, you tend to be afraid of its people. During my partner’s time in Qatar, he had telling interactions with a few people native to the Gulf, lending a bit of insight into their culture, which was far from frightening.
Two of his experiences were quick and silent communications initiated by Arabian Gulf women, which demonstrate a bit about their comfortability and demeanor in approaching men they don’t know. The other incident took place in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night. Here are three of this American business traveler’s impressions of Qataris.
Flat Tire in the Qatari Desert
It was around 2:30 in the morning in the middle of absolutely nowhere whatsoever and we were in a truck starting the two-hour drive back to the capital city of Doha. There was no road, only a bumpy desert path filled with rocks, so we weren’t too surprised when we got a flat.
We were in utter darkness, both literally as the desert night was pitch black, and figuratively, as none of the three of us knew how to change a flat. We considered the options of calling for help, trying to change the tire, or simply spending the night in the sand. We decided to use our satellite phone to get a signal to find a website that would tell us how to change the spare and also, firstly and importantly, where in the truck we could locate it.
Half an hour into the operation, we saw headlights in the distance. We became concerned, as we had seen not one car on our trips into the deep desert for the past week since we’d arrived in Qatar.
The driver stopped his car behind us and walked over. He pointed at the flat tire and said “Help?” We thanked him, but by that time we had a good idea of what we were doing. He seemed to appreciate our words of gratitude for stopping to try to help us. As he turned to get back in his car he said “Doha?” We said “Yes. Then he drove off.
Curiously, we saw more headlights in the deserted desert less than a half hour later. This time it was an older man who stopped. He rolled down his window and asked in better English than the previous good samaritan if we needed help. We repeated our show of appreciation and said we were just about finished changing the tire. He smiled and drove off.
Who drives in the raw, wild desert in the middle of the night? Besides us? We will never know. With all of the news about terrorism, travel bans and general disdain of the Middle East, my two friends were afraid they were about to be kidnapped as these vehicles approached. In actuality, the two Qataris who stopped to offer help may have been afraid too, of us.
But I personally believe they felt no fear or concern. Maybe they haven’t been taught to be afraid of us as we’ve been taught to fear them. I think it is their culture of genuine kindness that resulted in us meeting them in the middle of the night deep inside the Qatari desert.
Qatari Woman in the Marriott Marquis Hotel Elevator
The Marriott Marquis is a fabulous hotel in the diplomatic district of Doha, Qatar. Something happened in an elevator there that touched my heart.
A woman dressed in an abaya and sheyla, (the long black robe and head covering worn by some Muslim women), with the sheyla covering even her eyes, stood next to me on the elevator. With her was a girl of approximately five years of age, whom I presumed was her daughter. Like all little girls of the Middle East, she was dressed in western style clothes.
The woman reached for the girl’s wrist. I thought she was going to pull her in closer for extra safety from an unknown and obviously foreign person. Instead, silently she extended the girl’s hand toward me. Instantly I knew she wanted me to shake her hand. I did so without speaking and then smiled broadly at both of them to show how touched I was by the gesture.
I’ll never know their exact intent, but I interpreted their gesture as welcoming me to their country. Not a word was spoken. If I could read their minds, I might hear them say Qatar is very safe, the people are very friendly, there is no need to fear Muslims, the travel ban is extreme, their tourism is hurting and a big thank you to me for coming anyway.
Lost iPhone at the Islamic Museum
Inside the Islamic Museum of Art in Doha, next to a floor-to-ceiling glass wall overlooking the harbor, is a very spacious area where visitors can enjoy food they’ve ordered while sitting on comfortable furniture. After sipping a coffee on a sofa, absorbing the magnificent experience and ambiance, I got up to leave and my iPhone slipped out of my pocket.
I didn’t realize it was missing, but someone else did. I walked over to the large window for one last view of the beautiful harbor and sat down at a table for a moment. A woman dressed in black walked toward me. At first I thought nothing of this and looked back out at the harbor. A second glance back made me realize she was walking directly toward me.
As she got to within ten feet of me, she held out her arm. In her hand was a black object which was hard to see, as it blended in with her black abaya. It was my phone! I wished I could speak Arabic to thank her profusely, but I think she knew from my reaction how happy I was that she returned it to me.
In Doha, Qatar where people sometimes leave their phones at public charging stations, unattended, there is this overall sense of trust. This woman probably knew no one would steal it and my phone would end up in my hands again soon. She could have feared me or chosen not to alarm me and do nothing about my phone. This woman could not have known how I might react to her approaching me. Yet in a region where there is little interaction between Gulf women and foreign men, she felt comfortable and confident in helping me like people in many other parts of the world would not.
As told to Sabina Lohr, founder of Connect the Cultures