Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Qatar Experience I

At the time of writing I lie here in the giant bathtub, wiggling my foamy toes in pure unadulterated bliss. The water is scalding, but the simple experience of taking a bath is among the many things the Four Seasons Hotel can provide me with. In Ramallah, it would have been the high water bill at the end of the month that would have been the death of me. Ratios flutter, annoyingly so: 70 liters of water per Palestinian (below the WHO recommended 100 L) to 300 liters of water per Israeli. Even in this slice of pampering luxury, my people's reality is never too deep beneath the surface.

Along with three others, the Palestine Writing Workshop chose and sent us for the week long Summer Writing Institute in Doha, Qatar, fully sponsored by the fabulously generous Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing. It has become an annual thing to do, as the five participants from last year came back laden with donated books, bursting with stories, experiences, and wildly imaginative adventures. The idea is that the participants will also give back to the PWW as co-facilitators and take the next step in becoming a writer in residence by being part of a training program given by the PWW itself. Also, building a community of writers is the essence of what the PWW is all about and those semi-vacationers get to encourage and reimburse that One Love attitude to their peers.

To backtrack:

I had already been in Amman for a week now, and while Dina, Dalia (our lovely supervisor), Mustafa, and Hussam crossed the Allenby bridge and headed straight to the airport, I took my time. Traveling without family was so exciting, yet sadly I looked like that type of first-timer. Instead of heading toward the departures gate I went to the arrivals, and after being mobbed by the babble of five employees all at once, I finally went to the right one where I met up with the group. After 20 minutes, it was time to check in. The girls got through easily as we had our printed visas but the guys had a bit of trouble as their visas were issued but not sent. Just before we went to sit again outside our gate number, we had to have our passports once again checked by airport employees.

"Nablus?" he aasked.
"It's either Nablus or Ramallah."
I stared. "What are you talking about?"
The employee laughed. "That's where the pretty girls come from."

Oh gross. I grimaced, and my nostrils flared. How quaint. Typical Jordanians once again displaying their "light-hearted humor/خفة الدم".

"Look into the scanner Linah."

I glared at it. I should be addressed as ma'am or madam (hell, I'll even take sir) and not on a first name basis. Jordanian professionalism. Next to me in the other booth, the second employee was guffawing and telling Dina to smile in the scanner.

"I don't want to," she said flatly. I always think of her as Dina AK-47 because she signs off her last name as AK.

"It's better to smile. What do you want to keep on frowning for?" and the two clowns fell into laughter again.

I stood stiffly on the escalator as we made our way up to the Duty Free store. Then I regained my jolly mood as like true Japanese tourists, we took pictures of everything. Our boarding pass, our passports, our boarding pass in our passports, zoom in on our tickets, posing with the boarding pass, some random baby on a table, the stores, the floor, each other, etc. We knew it was crazy and silly and overwhelming, but hey this was our trip and we were gonna live it up to the last minute! Also, Dina's new camera was those expensive professional ones and we were really just trying out the settings, to no avail.

On the plane, Dina got the window seat as it was her first time flying. Her camera never stopped clicking and flashing. "Why is the plane moving on the ground? When is it going to move in the air?"

"It's called taxiing," I tried to explain.

We took off moments later, our seats angled at a tilt, and suddenly I felt sick, oh so sick. I had car sickness when I was a kid, and I felt my throat tightening as I took in deep breaths.
Pull it together, this isn't the first time you've flown, yallah, think about what movie you're going to watch.

I settled for The Fighter, but after fifteen minutes I was fingering the barf bag and turned my screen off. Occasionally Dina turned to ask me a question, yelling a bit apparently forgetting that she had headphones on tuned to Latino music.

The second hour was better. I felt back to normal again, was laughing out loud at the 7 episodes of 30 Rock, and eating plane food with gusto. As a notorious slow eater, I shoved the crackers and buttered bread-waste not!- next to the armrest before sweetly handing over the tray to the air stewardess who was hovering around my seat for the second time.

We greeted our first step off the plane with a grin that immediately twisted into a horrified expression as we inhaled water-logged air. At Maha Services, our visas were once again checked, complementary of owning a third world passport. The lounge was comfortable. Looking for the bathroom I came upon three doorknobs barely jutting out of the wood paneling. I tried one and it didn't open, before the helpful Indian worker pushed it toward the inside of the wall-a door concealed in a wall!- to reveal the bathroom. Finally we got out of the airport, and after initial confusion of which driver to go with (the Four Seasons driver or the Indian driver holding up a paper with Dalia's name on it) we drove into the night and reached the phantasmagorically ostentatious hotel.

Inside the elevator, Dalia was complaining of how everything was so...stratified. The Egyptian receptionists, the African and Nepalese/Philippine doormen, all those busy worker ants flitting like ghosts working hard to make sure everyone is not just content but exceedingly satisfied, all against a hugely expensive backdrop...it did make us uncomfortable. In Palestine we were the brown people, in Qatar we are the exalted folk. Our rooms made me scream. They looked-understatement coming up- so comfortable. I dived onto my bed, gurgling happily before I leaped up and checked out my personal sanctuary, (golden music please) the bathroom. And it did not disappoint. I climbed into the bathtub fully clothed, climbed back out and marveled at the sliding double doors fitted with full length mirrors, reawakening my beastly vanity.

Attempting to capture the enthusiasm of that very first night, I do realize how this all might sound like. Fresh greens gaping at the city lights for the first time and all that. But that's not the case at all. And now I've written a sort of disclaimer, never a good sign for first draft writing.

The group walked outside before hurrying back in the hotel to escape from the merciless humidity. We all slept late, and woke up very early. The morning yielded the spectacular view of the hotel's pools and own private beach. We ate breakfast downstairs observing the other guests with interest. One Asian businessman walked in and spotted his associate let's say, an American man who was drinking his coffee and reading the newspaper. The Asian man said,

"Good morning! May I join you?"
"Uh, no actually I'm finishing up. Find someplace else to sit."

Someone is lacking in taste and manners! After breakfast we climbed into the white jeep with our gentle kind Somalian driver, Ibrahim.We reached Doha's education city with its cluster of university campuses and walked in the student center, currently undergoing on-site construction which makes the classes that bit more enjoyable. In fact, we still don't understand how the rooms at VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University), the original setting for the Summer Writing Institute went AWOL.

The group then dispersed to their respective classes. There was Arabic fiction with Alma Khasineh, blogging in Arabic with Farah Ghneim, English fiction with Lesley Thomson, personal essay/nonfiction writing with Carol Henderson, and poetry with Patti Payne. We start at 9 and finish at around 3pm. The other students surprisingly to us since we expected peers our age were expatriate wives who were all in the middle of writing their own books. They are a lovely bunch of women who don't fit the vacuous expat wife role into which they are so easily typified into. And that's one of the main things we like about the classes, that there is no judgement on anyone's side. There's a lot of writing in class and the best thing is the comments -no negative critique-you get once you read them out loud.

Despite the obvious racism and stratification, some of Doha is impressive for the first comer. This country is still building itself, as evidenced by the city center called the Dafneh which has beautiful glass empty skyscrapers. The name Dafneh is pretty funny since it has connotations to do with burial, which is the feeling you get as a result of it being right next to the Corniche and hence the unbelievably heavy humidity. So far we've experienced the Museum of Modern Art, attended the last episode for this season's The Doha Debate, and walked through Souk Waqif. This week better drag by slowly!

*Photo Credit Dina AK


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  2. It's 1:30 AM here and I am exhausted and tired from a long day of dealing with people, and yet I find myself unable to stop reading your posts! I then thought, "damn! She is a good writer!". I actually graduated from Birzeit in 2009 and I can relate to your stories regarding life in BZU... But you know what's funny? Is that I am now doing my MA at NYU and I am STILL surrounded by idiots.

    I have a feeling you are going to be very successful writer. Best of luck!