Well, for better or worse, here is the last post we successfully uploaded to the 2008 version of our blog — my essay written upon arrival in Qatar.
Those of you who have spent a semester abroad, or perhaps now live abroad, or perhaps have spent some portion of your life conducting fieldwork in a faraway place are perfectly familiar with the dilemma one faces in answering the question, “What’s it like over there?” Ethnography, the craft and product to which most anthropologists and a fair number of sociologists are dedicated, accounts for its principal strengths in its claim to capture some significant breadth of that social and cultural whole that other disciplines reject as too amorphous, complex, or beyond the scope of their concern. Yet today even ethnographers are clear that our understandings—the ones in our head, and the ones in the books and articles we write—are partial at best. And I suppose that’s what I have to offer: a partial glimpse of my partial knowledge of a part of the world where I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the past decade.
Rather than start with the typical litany of facts that might comprise a standard introduction (for example, that petroleum is the basis of Qatar’s economy, that there are some 350,000 Qataris but well over a million people here, that the country is governed by the Al Thani family, and so forth), let me tell you about the mall down the street. We—that is, me, my wife Kristin, my daughter Astrid, and a couple hundred other faculty members at Qatar University—live in a compound just down the street from Villaggio, Qatar’s newest mall. The fact that after visiting the mall perhaps twenty times we discovered another wing (Ralph Lauren! Dolce and Gabbana! Prada!) tells you something of its size. My daughter has learned to ice skate at this mall. The prime feature of Villaggio is the large canal that runs down its center.
Authentic looking gondolas ply the waters of the canal just across the promenade from the Italian-modern Caffe Vergnano, where I currently sit with my double espresso. Gondoliers—mostly Filipino guest workers costumed in the horizontal striped shirts and the shallow, wide brim hats that fit the Venetian ideal—pilot those boats. They carry families of wealthier expatriates, of which I’m a fine example, and more frequently, “locals,” the nomenclature used in Doha for the Qataris. So the sight of a group of traditionally-dressed men and fully veiled women—common but perhaps not standard in Qatar—enjoying a leisurely ride down a Venetian canal in a newly-minted mall located in the hot Saharan desert is the sort of post-modernity one is constantly confronted with here and in the other booming cities of the Gulf. And it also gives one a glimpse of the central puzzle which preoccupies many scholars of the region, myself included: for societies that value and promote an explicit traditionalism, how have they gone about accommodating such a wide spectrum of what anthropologist Paul Dresch has called “foreign matter?”
This is one of the questions I hope to address during my research here. As many of you know, I’m currently on leave from Puget Sound. I accepted a two-year appointment with Qatar University, where I’ll be teaching a few classes each semester. The campus is gender-segregated, and this semester I’m teaching two classes in the women’s section. My students are wonderful and, aside from the fact that they’re all women, quite diverse. Many are Qatari, but they come from both Doha and the more rural hinterlands of Qatar. Others come from nearby countries and as far away as India and Bosnia. The University offers courses in both Arabic and English; students at Qatar University must pass the TOEFL exam before proceeding to the sorts of undergraduate courses we teach at Puget Sound. While many of my students struggle with English, they bring the same energy and excitement to the classroom that I’ve grown accustomed to in teaching at Puget Sound. And my colleagues in my department are equally diverse—they come from Qatar, Tunisia, the Sudan, Egypt, and a few other places both far and near.
My students at Puget Sound are probably altogether too familiar with the fact that my previous research is concerned with the foreign labor force here in the Gulf States. While I’ve committed myself to a few new directions while I’m here (particularly, an ethnographic grasp on consumer culture in the Gulf, as well as an urban anthropological analysis of the spatial articulation of the city), I am definitely headed into more research with the guest worker population here in Qatar. Like many of the other Gulf States, Qatar hosts an astonishingly large foreign labor force. In Doha, nearly 80% of the population comprises non-citizen foreigners. My previous work—and really all of the work that looks at the experiences of the foreign labor force here—is qualitative in nature. In other words, we understand some of the problems these men and women encounter while working in the Gulf States, but we have no idea how frequently those sorts of problems, dilemmas, and issues occur. I’m working with several colleagues on a proposal to establish a broad and quantitative understanding of the challenges the poorest of these foreign laborers face while here in Qatar.
Anyway, I think this rambling essay is already too long for a blog. But if this sort of place or setting is of interest to you, please feel free to drop me a line. And if you’re thinking about a semester abroad, you might consider the SIT program in Oman. Oman is certainly one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever visited, and Puget Sound has sent two students to that program over the last few years. Kerala Hise, an IPE student, is there now, in fact, and I’m sure she’d be happy to talk to you about her experiences.
My espresso is now cold. I hope all of you are well!