Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Book Fair

Check out this recent article in the newspaper about an upcoming book fair. Figured I would mention it since I had recently posted about why it is difficult to find a detailed history of Qatar.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Back Update

Okay so the MRI results came back, looks like I have a slight degeneration in one of the discs in my lower back. It has a lot less fluid than the other discs, which affects the elasticity, which can cause soreness and pinching. Definitely could see it in the MRI -- all of my discs showed up as black with white in the middle except for the troubled disc which was entirely black. So I'm booked for physiotherapy (starting this week), need to lose weight, and try to avoid sitting for long periods of time, which is more difficult than it sounds since I work in an office. If after a few months there is still no improvements I think I can have fluid injected into the disc, but that sounds a little scary. The degeneration is apparently something that can come with age and also with people who sit for long periods of time. I'm getting old! *sigh*

On the plus side booking physiotherapy was a breeze, go down one floor to the physiotherapy department at the clinic, hand them the referral form, and my first appointment is in a few days (provided the insurance company approves it of course). When it comes to wait times for medical service Qatar beats Canada hands-down.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve Medical

While everyone else is gearing up for Christmas (well, the Westerners and Christians anyway) I decided to do something different -- go to the doctor about my back. The blood work and x-rays were ready so I was to see him.

So another meeting with a doctor, another consultation, and another prescription for medications, my third in eight days. I had to spend a minute to ask the doctor which ones of the old prescriptions do I keep taking and which ones do I stop. Oh, and I have to lose weight. Next appointment is on Sunday.

By the time I got home: my back ached, my tooth ached from that cavity I had filled a few days ago, my Repetitive Strain Injury was acting up a little because I was driving around, traffic was lousy, I'm now on a diet, and because of the cavity I can't eat anything hot or cold for a week, and it was still hot outside. I was miserable.

Then, like those corny old Christmas specials on TV, I received a gift. And thanks to this gift everything started looking better again, my misery vanished, and I was back to my happier self...

... prescription painkillers!

Wow, those things work like a charm! It's amazing how much better you feel about things when you're not in pain and discomfort.

Back to health care. When I first saw the back doctor (a neurosurgeon) he wanted me to undergo some blood tests, x-rays, and an MRI. Did the blood tests and the x-ray immediately thereafter, and made an appointment for the MRI, which would be in three weeks. When I spoke to the doctor today he asked about the MRI and I told them I had made a booking for January 11. He immediately said, "no, no that's too long, go back and tell them to get an earlier appointment, if you pressure them they will do it."

I thought that was strange, I thought three weeks for an MRI was pretty good (in Canada it would be). So I went back to the MRI area and told the clerk at the appointment desk that I had an appointment through January 11 but the doctor would like me to have it earlier. So he did a bit of typing on his computer, then said:

"Okay, comeback at 4:30 this afternoon"

So I had an MRI appointment for the same day! In fact, I just got back from it. (Are you reading this Health Canada!?) That's why my next appointment with the doctor is Sunday, to discuss my MRI results.

Now I do not want anyone to worry that I will be spending Christmas sitting in some corner alone in the dark. I'm visiting friends tomorrow morning, and going to another friend's place for Christmas dinner. I have also booked my plane tickets for Canada so in about five weeks time I will be with my family having our usual late-Christmas. And thanks to prescription painkillers I should enjoy it all, even though I will not be eating as much as I would have liked.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Warranty Has Expired

These past few days has seen me go to one doctor for a problem with my back (doctor suspects it is a joint inflammation between the spine and the hip, test results come back Thursday), and to the dentist to get a deep cavity filled (this was why I needed to get my wisdom teeth out the cavity was between a tooth and an impacted wisdom tooth).

I swear my mother must have a certificate that was given to her when I was born stating that I have a 38-year warranty because, man, am I falling apart! I've been under general anaesthetic three times in the last year and have had two other medical problems besides. Almost everything has been resolved so if this back inflammation can get sorted out then I have to worry about is my repetitive strain injury.

I hope 2010 is way better medical-wise.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

National Day

Qatar's National Day was the 18th. They used to celebrate Independence Day (in this case independence from British oversight in 1971) on September 3 but a couple of years ago it was decided to instead celebrate when the Al-Thani family became the rulers of Qatar, so celebrating on September 3 was shelved in favour of December 18. From a weather point of view an excellent decision, the temperature is still in the mid-40s in early September which makes outdoor celebrations difficult.

Offhand I do not have the history of the Royal family handy but I believe that the current ruler is the fifth or sixth of the Al-Thani rulers, so the Al-Thanis have ruled the country for about a century.

Getting a detailed history of the area is quite challenging, as far as I can tell there are no history books in English giving more than a brief overview of Qatar's history. From discussions with my Qatari colleagues there are not many in Arabic as well. The reason seem to involve internal politics.

If you look at the history of Qatar, as was the history of other countries in the region, it was dominated by the interactions between the various families (though in English it would be considered more like clans instead of families since these families can have thousands of members). Families would control certain areas, possibly raid others, form alliances, engage in wars, flee to other areas if overrun etc. The history of these interactions and conflicts were rarely written down but instead kept in oral tradition, handed down from generation to generation. I've had the occasional snippet of this history, that the town of Al-Khor used to be under the control of a coalition of seven small families, or that one clan had been chased out of Qatar and had moved to what is now Bahrain, but for the most part I have no idea about what happened here. I'm sure a detailed history would be interesting. So why isn't there one?

Because all of the families are still around.

Histories are full of victors and losers, heroes and villains, joy and sorrow. So if a detailed history of Qatar were to be written who would be the bad guys? You can bet that none of the families are going to accept a history book that portrays them in a bad light, and I'm willing to bet that the oral histories very differently from family to family. What one family may consider a righteous victory another might consider an unjustified massacre. One family "reclaiming their land" would be considered "taking our land" by another family. And who would be right? That is what makes writing down the detailed history of the region so difficult. And I'm guessing that is why you do not see any books on it, it would be a sure way to just ruffle a lot of feathers.

This creates some confusion even amongst Qataris learning their history. One mentioned to me that he took a course in school and later took a history course while in Bahrain and what was taught there was very different from what was taught in Qatar, which also differed from what older members of the family would tell him about certain events. It would be difficult to tell who was right in the end.

Anyway, happy National Day Qatar. I hope that a comprehensive history book can come out one day.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Myths about Muslims, part 2

okay, let's continue with the "misconceptions about Muslims"

4) myth: all Muslims memorise the Qur'an
the Qur'an says [. . . .] so all Muslims follow it to the letter

I have lumped these two together because they both stem from a misconception regarding how much Muslims adhere to the Scripture. We in the West are fully aware that Christians do not follow every single item in the Bible to a "T", and that there is wide variance as to what aspects of the Bible individuals follow or how they interpret it. Yet for some reason we are not willing to apply that same standard to Muslims, if the Qur'an has a passage about something people conclude that all Muslims follow it exactly the same.

For example I have been to a few international seminars in Europe in which some of the attendees are Muslims. Inevitably when we go out to dinner one or two of them has wine or beer with their meal. Someone usually whispers to me "I thought Muslims couldn't drink alcohol", and my response is always "And Christians are supposed to be virgins until they are married.". They usually get the hint. When it comes to how adamantly people follow the scriptures with Islam, like Christianity, the actual application may vary from person to person, and even from culture to culture (see item 1 from my previous blog post).

This ties in with the myth that all Muslims memorise the Qur'an, which I think mostly derives from all of those news reports showing young boys in madrasas rocking back and forth while reciting the Qur'an. Now don't get me wrong, many Muslims try to memorise the Qur'an, or at least parts of it, but "many" is not "all" and a lot don't memorise it (I daresay most do not memorise it but I do not have exact figures). I do not know anyone who has memorised it. I have even asked a couple of people and the response is usually something like "oh that is something fundamentalists or imams do".

Now during Ramadan one of the requirements is for a Muslim to either read the entire Qur'an or listen to someone else recite it (many mosques hold special readings during Ramadan at a set time for this purpose so if you show up every evening you will ultimately listen to the entire Scripture being read). Again not everyone does this, but how necessary would it be if everyone had memorised it already? Don't forget that historically a lot of people were illiterate, which would have made memorisation even more difficult.

And I have found that some Muslims are unaware of some of the passages in Scripture, just like most Christians. For example when I was in Turkey I was at a bar chatting with another traveller about the differences between Turkey and Qatar. He had joked that because of the wealth in Qatar maybe he should find a Qatari woman to marry and I mentioned that in Islam a Muslim woman could only marry a Muslim man, although the reverse was not true as a Muslim man could marry a Christian or Jewish woman. He wondered if the same would apply in Turkey so we called over the bartender (a Turk) and asked if a Turkish Muslim woman could marry a Christian or Jewish man. He shrugged and said "why not?". I guess he didn't know that the Qur'an says she can't (sura 2:221). My Turkish friend was also not aware it was in the Qur'an.

One could argue that maybe Turks don't memorise Scripture because they are "liberal" compared to other Muslim societies but I have found the same in Qatar.

Because I'm interested in different cultures I sometimes have discussions with my Qatari friends about Islam, or why they do the things they do -- whether it is cultural or Scriptural, or chat about specific hadiths, and there is the rare time that I remember something I read in the Scripture or the hadiths that they had forgotten (not drinking from silver cups is one). It is rare, believe me, but it has happened. When we chat further about it the conclusion is usually that the requirements are already ingrained into the culture so it is followed without people sometimes realising its source. My Qatari friends do not wear gold because they knew that it was considered to be for women only and it was unacceptable for Qatari men to wear it. At least one didn't realise it is actually from a hadith, and a Pakistani colleague of mine did not realise it either. I have also met one Muslim here who needed to look up the dietary restrictions because he was unsure about a specific food but couldn't remember all of the restrictions in the Qur'an. So no, all Muslims do not memorise Scripture.

5) myth: all Muslims hate [insert foreigners/Westerners/Jews/whatever]

Another misconception created by the squeaky wheel getting the news coverage. Yes, Islamic terrorists have issues against either the US, Israel, or sometimes just generally the West. Yes, many people attend rallies where flags are burned. Yes, someone threw shoes at Bush. But there are over one billion Muslims in this world and unfortunately "a bunch of Muslims met in Kuala Lumpur and had peaceful discussions about Government farm subsidies" will never appear on CNN.

In the West there are always discussions about immigrants and whether they fit in and whether they are eroding local "culture". It seems to be a topic that never goes away.

Well in Qatar local citizens make up maybe 20% of the total population, probably less. 20%!! And it is not like it has always been this way, Qatar's population has grown so quickly from migration that as little as 8-10 years ago local citizens were in the majority. If such a change were to happen in a Western country there would be citizens rioting in the streets! But in the almost 4 years that I have been here I have never had anyone tell me to "go home", or go back where I came from, or said some anti-Western insult. I have seen a couple of times such sentiment expressed in opinion columns in the newspapers but most locals laugh at the thought of getting rid of the foreigners. Young Qataris have more ambitious plans than to become waiters, store clerks and taxi drivers, and the country's wealth allows them to set their expectations high. The country realises that it needs foreigners to fill most of the jobs, especially the lower paying ones, so the citizens were willing to become a minority in their own country. And no, most of these foreigners are not Muslims, there are thousands of Hindus from India, Christians from the Philippines, and Westerners of whatever religious belief. Many Gulf countries are like this. This would seem at odds with Western perceptions that Muslims hate foreigners or Westerners. The region does have issues with Israel but whether they have issues with Jews per se depends on the individual -- many Muslims realise that Israel is not all of Judaism, and all of Judaism is not Israel. Unfortunately some do think this way, which is no different in prejudice to people who think all Muslims are all the same.

and finally:

6) myth: all Muslims are Arabs, all Arabs are Muslims, all Muslims speak Arabic

Many in the West use "Arab" interchangeably with "Muslim" but the two are not synonymous. Indonesians certainly are not Arabs, Chinese Uighars would never consider themselves Arab, and neither would Turks. In fact most Muslims in the world are not Arabs, the exact percentage would depend on which countries you consider "Arab", but Arabs would form the minority in any event.

As for all Arabs being Muslims one has to remember that countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt have always had significant Christian populations. In Jordan something like 15% of the population of Christian and I believe the number is even higher in Lebanon. When I vacationed in Egypt our guide was a Coptic Christian named Michael. So yes, the majority of Arabs are Muslims but it is incorrect to assume that all Arabs are.

As for Arabic it is widespread in certain parts of the Islamic world but is not spoken in others. Starting from Morocco and going east across North Africa all of those countries speak Arabic, as do the countries in the Arabian Peninsula, but once you reach Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq use of Arabic declines. North of them is Turkey, and despite the population being Muslim for over a thousand years they speak Turkish, not Arabic. East of those countries is Iran, which has always kept its Persian languages such as Farsi, Pakistanis predominantly speak Urdu, Afghanis have a wide range of languages such as Pushtan, and of course Malaysians and Indonesians have their own languages. Individuals will study Arabic as part of reading the Qur'an in its original language, but the vast majority are not fluent in it.

I could go on about Arabic for a while, even within the various countries that speak Arabic the dialects can be so different that it can be a challenge for one Arabic speaker to understand an Arabic speaker from another country. And the Arabic used in the Qur'an is different from the modern Arabic used today. I've had posts about this in the past so search my blog if you want more details.

Okay, rant over. I think Switzerland made a big mistake with their referendum, and I believe that much of their fear or annoyance with Islam is based on a lack of understanding.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Turkey, and Swiss minarets

A couple of weeks ago was the craziest week of work I have had in years, I had to put in so much overtime it prevented me from updating my blog and informing everyone that for the upcoming Eid holiday I went to Turkey for a few days. My friend Serdar was there with his son and it was really great to meet up with them and do a few things off the beaten track in Istanbul.

I was staying in a nice boutique hotel in Sultanahmet which had an amazing rooftop restaurant/bar with a view of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. And ironically, while looking these amazing buildings, it was there that I heard about the decision by the people of Switzerland to ban further building of minarets.

Not tall buildings, not structures that the belong to religious institutions, just minarets. Why? Well because they represent Islam of course.

I find the decision truly sad. It is discrimination against a specific religious group, no more, no less. I find it somewhat inexplicable but take comfort that I cannot fathom such a thing happening in Canada. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is all too clear and the Supreme Court of Canada would throw out such a law on its butt.

Reading further it appears that Switzerland has a law that as long as a certain number of citizens (100,000?) signs a petition on a particular issue that it has to go to a referendum. A politician in Canada suggested implementing something like that once, and a comedy troupe quickly showed why that is a ridiculous idea. I guess Switzerland didn't see the show.

On the JREF forum there was a thread about it, and it surprised me the number of bigoted or ignorant comments that came forth on the issue from some people, though in defence of the posters most of them agreed that the Swiss decision was little more than discrimination and were quick to jump on the bigoted arguments. A Jewish contributor also pointed out the eerie parallels between what was happening now and the types of laws that were happening 70 or 80 years ago against Jews. I'm not sure he even needs to go back that far, any anti-Semitic conspiracy theories around the internet use similar scare tactics to try to paint Judaism negatively.

I did learn something though reading many of the comments -- many people in the West know little to nothing about Islam or the Islamic world, and it leads to a lot of misconceptions and prejudice. I'm not saying that the Islamic world is some kind of utopian paradise, but how will the real issues be addressed when they have to spend their time facing criticism on issues that for the most part are just based on misconceptions?

So, let me take a moment to lay on the table a number of items that seems to be commonly understood in the West -- but is plain wrong.

1) myth: Islam is a one-dimensional monolithic entity

Islam, like Christianity, is split into various sects and factions. Sunni and Shi'a are the ones that people are familiar with but even within those there are many different types, much like "Protestant" encompasses a large number of different groups in Christianity. There are Sufis, Wahhabists, Ismailis (that's the group headed by the Aga Khan) and so on. All are different, and even within those groups people practise their religion differently -- some are fundamentalist, some are moderate, and many do not go to the mosque much and like wine with their dinner. No different than Christianity. Or Judaism for that matter.

Remember, over two dozen countries have a majority Muslim population -- ranging from Morocco all the way to Indonesia, and the societies between these countries can vary dramatically. Turkey is very different from Saudi Arabia, which is different from Oman, which is different from Egypt, which is nothing like Malaysia, which is different from Pakistan and so on. I get tired of seeing statements about Islam or Muslims that implies that they all act the same, dress the same way, are all in agreement about how to deal with the West, and so forth.

I have been fortunate to travel in many Muslim countries in the last few years and can tell you the assumption that people in one Muslim country are the same as in another makes about as much sense as assuming that Peruvians and Italians are the same because they are both from Catholic countries.

2) myth: Muslims want to impose sharia law on everybody

First of all, which sharia law would that be? See item one above. Even in countries that do have sharia law it is imposed differently from country to country. No alcohol allowed in Saudi Arabia but I can get a drink in Qatar, and I've seen many Omanis in dishdasha at the bars in Muscat. A Muslim man approaching women he doesn't know and asking them out could get him in trouble in Qatar -- and maybe get him a date in Lebanon. Does anyone think Egyptian law is the same as Taliban Afghanistan? (If you do you need to travel more.)

Oh wait, is Lebanon under sharia law? Iraq? Malaysia? Azerbaijan? I know Turkey isn't. Hey, I think there might be countries, where the majority of the population is Muslim, who themselves don't impose sharia law! So why the myth that Muslims want to impose sharia on everybody?

Because most of the Muslims you hear about on the TV news or read in the newspapers are the fundamentalists who like sharia law. A Muslim group asking for a sharia law to be applied in family court in the UK gets headlines, 90+ percent of Muslims accepting UK family law does not get headlines. Taliban madrasas get airtime, Turkish women going to university to become lawyers do not. What is shown to people tends to bias them.

3) myth: all Muslim women are dressed head-to-toe in black with veils (or in burkas)

Boy people in the West love those Saudi women dressed head-to-toe in black abayas with veils. Anytime someone wants to portray Muslims in a bad light out come the photos of women in abayas, though Afghani women in burkas have become fashionable in the last few years as well.

Has anyone seen TV news reports about the Swiss vote? Hopefully it showed that wonderful campaign poster of minarets sticking out of the Swiss flag looking like missiles while in the foreground there is a woman in an abaya and veil. What the heck!?

Abayas are commonly worn by women in the Arabian Peninsula but it is only mandatory in Saudi Arabia, in other countries in the Gulf such as Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait it is not mandatory, and many local women do not wear veils. Non-local women, even if they are Muslim, are not required to wear abayas in Qatar. None of the Qatari ladies who work in my office wear veils, and I know a Bahraini woman in Qatar who does not even cover her hair. No one cares.

The Swiss poster seems to imply that Muslim women wear abayas, but if most abaya-wearing women are from Saudi Arabia does that mean most of the Muslims in Switzerland are originally from Saudi Arabia? I doubt it. In fact, if that JREF thread is on the mark, most Swiss Muslims are from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. Countries where women don't wear abayas. Heck, in Turkey a lot of them don't even wear headscarves.

Someone can feel free to correct me but here are the countries where you will commonly find local women with their faces covered:

Saudi Arabia
maybe the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain. (Iraq?)

I think that's it. No, not Iran, they do have a dress code for women but it does not include veils.

Well that does not actually represent a lot of people. Turkey, Egypt and Indonesia each have populations as big or larger than the entire list combined, yet no one seems to pull out pictures of Indonesian women when talking of Islam. If many Swiss Muslims are from Bosnia why didn't the Swiss poster show a European woman in a floral headscarf with no veil?


In summary, Muslim women with their faces covered represent a minority of the Islamic population, and even fewer of them where those black abayas we in the West are so fond of.

Man this is getting long and I still have a few more points to make! I think I will stop it here and continue in my next blog post.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Attention people in Dubai

... you should read my blog more often.

I warned you that there was a huge property bubble.
I warned you that rents and property prices would crash.
and I warned you that the debt load of the emirate was shocking

Granted, I wasn't expecting Dubai to default/restructure/delay payment so early, and on so much debt. It's been rippling through the financial markets all over the world. You can't just announce to people that you would like to hold off on payments on your $60 billion of loans and not create a big fuss.

Most people are of the opinion that oil-rich neighbour Abu Dhabi will eventually bail them out. Possibly, if the debt problem causes the entire UAE to suffer then they will have to step in, but not without Dubai paying a price. It already looks like Abu Dhabi is stepping up to eclipse Dubai as the finance/tourism hub of the country. Tourism ads for Abu Dhabi are all over the international networks now (like CNNi).

Well I have one more prediction about this mess. Call it a hunch.

The size of the debt has been underestimated.

The $80 billion figure that keeps getting battered around as Dubai's total debt load I believe comes from a Government announcement a number of months ago when people were asking about transparency regarding the total Government liabilities. I'm not sure whether that figure can be believed. Dubai PR machine was busy in the last few months making announcements about how the worst was over and things were picking back up again, so I'm not sure about their track record on announcements. I think the total debt load is bigger than $80 billion, not grossly bigger, maybe another $20 billion, but in the months to come we will probably hear about some more debt and the total debt load will be revalued.

Let's see how I do on this one.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Qatar and Education

This week Qatar is hosting the World Innovation Summit for Education conference. I wish I could have gone but I'm recuperating and it is held on working days so even if I was not recovering I'd have to go to work instead.

Despite the fact that I do not work in an educational field, nor do I have any children, I've always had an interest in educational theory and standards. Maybe because I just love learning and in my school days I certainly learned how an aspiring teacher or a decent programme can make all the difference in someone's education. Unfortunately I have also learnt how a bad teacher can turn people off learning and even discourage people from following a field of study that they liked. And thanks to authors like Jonathan Kozol I've also learnt how poorly funded or overcrowded schools can turn promising young students apathetic and bitter, destroying their potential.

Getting back to the conference is a good thing that Qatar is hosting it -- because they need a lot of innovation right now if they are going make significant improvements to their educational system.

I mentioned in a previous blog post about the OECD's PISA test, which tests 15-year-old students all over the world in reading, mathematics, and science. Despite having one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, I think only second to Luxembourg, Qatar's students scored very poorly on the 2006 PISA test:

Reading -- 55th out of 56 countries
Mathematics -- 56th out of 57 countries
Science -- 56th out of 57 countries

(Krygryzstan was last in all categories)

Well there is also another educational test that numerous countries participate in. It is called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) test, which tests grade 4 and grade 8 students. And in this test Qatar performed poorly as well, countries such as Ghana and Botswana scored higher. In fact in math Qatar was second-last for Grade 4 and last for Grade 8, in science Qatar was second-last at both ages. How can a country with so much wealth not have an educational system better than many impoverished nations?

I spoke to some Qataris about it. First of all, much like when I mentioned the PISA test a while back, they were not surprised by the results at all. They weren't sure whether things have changed since when they were younger (but they are in their mid-20s so if things are different it wasn't changed that long ago) but when they were in school:

-- A large amount of your grade was attendance, so much of it in fact that if you just showed up you could pretty much pass regardless of your test results.
-- Exams were not comprehensive. If you covered a chapter of a math text you're usually given a small quiz on it and that was that, you did not have to study the material again. This would deftly discourage long-term retention of anything.
-- Apparently schools are run almost as profit centres. Schools are given a certain amount of money from the government without the lot of oversight into how it is spent. So a lot of schools cut corners, resulting in low-paid teachers and overcrowded classrooms. [ I'm not so sure about this one, I'm pretty sure the Ministry of Education would do some oversight on spending. Perhaps because rents are so high a lot of money has to go to rent for the school building and housing for teachers, making it more problematic for schools to spend money on other things]
-- a lot of time spent on religious studies which takes away from science, maths etc. I can't blame a sharia society are putting emphasis on religious study and I doubt that is the main reason why the test scores are so poor (one would think it would improve reading scores). I don't think Qatar would be willing to be number one in these tests if it meant getting rid of religious study. Perhaps the Education Ministry would aim for improvements to keep the country's students at least on par with the industrialised world, balancing it with the religious study.
-- not a lot of homework given out. I remember talking to one person who used to teach in Bahrain and they told me that teachers were generally discouraged from giving out homework since a lot of the kids would just get someone else to do it for them at home, or pay someone. Not too hard to imagine since many South Asian labourers make as little as $120 a month, I'm sure they'd gladly do a kid's homework for $10.
-- And of course it might be the usual culprits that are always bantered about in North America when discussing education -- TV/video games and parental involvement in education.

Qatar has made some changes, I know it developed an Academic Bridge programme through Qatar Foundation to give recent graduates extra assistance in getting them prepared for University but that may be too little too late. Changes are definitely needed in the elementary and middle school programmes if Qatar is going to make significant improvements in education.

The results of the 2009 PISA test are due out around March or April next year. I'm hopeful there will be a slight improvement but nothing significant, comprehensive educational reform will take many years. Any changes that were implemented by the Ministry since the 2006 test will take time to show up in the scoring.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Al Ahli Hospital versus Doha Clinic

Okay I'm back from the hospital for the wisdom teeth extraction at Al Ahli Hospital. So far so good, face is not too swollen and the pain has been more like a dull ache that non-prescription painkillers keeps in check, I don't need the heavy-duty painkillers thankfully. The procedure was a little more complicated than a standard wisdom tooth extraction so I needed to be under a general anaesthetic and spent 24 hours in the hospital.

So in the course of one month I have undergone general anaesthesia and a hospital stay in both Doha Clinic and Al Ahli Hospital (AAH). AAH is the newest private hospital in Doha, spacious with wonderful-looking facilities, and most companies purchasing private medical plans for their employees want AAH on the list. Doha Clinic is older, not as spacious, and tends to be more crowded. But are looks everything? Here's my comparison:

Approval for the procedure: Tie. both places sent the request for the procedure to the insurance company and as soon as approval was given my procedure was scheduled within a week.

Initial blood work and admissions procedures: Doha Clinic. I just had to go to the laboratory for the blood tests and there was no waiting or delays processing paperwork. AAH was busier and it took around a half an hour before I could get my blood taken, and I also had to separately go to an admissions office to sort out the room booking, which I did not have the do at Doha Clinic. Good thing AAH had sent a nurse along with me otherwise I probably would have had to ask someone where to go. I know, I know, a half-hour wait for blood work is not exactly an ordeal, but it was still quicker and easier at Doha Clinic so it wins.

Preapproval consultation: Tie. this is a bit trickier because there are two consultations involved, with the surgeon and with the anaesthesiologist. The consultation with the surgeon was definitely longer and more detailed at AAH, but the consultation with the anaesthesiologist was better at Doha Clinic. At AAH the anaesthesiologist consultation was a couple of minutes in my hospital room before the procedure, at Doha Clinic the consultation took place days before at the anaesthesiologist's office and we had a good 15-minute discussion. I will say that much of the information asked by the anaesthesiologist at Doha Clinic was instead done by a nurse at AAH but I feel more at ease talking to the specialist directly. Also, no one at AAH mentioned fasting before the procedure. I fasted anyway because I knew from my operation at Doha Clinic that you should fast before going under a general anaesthetic. It was not until I got to AAH for the procedure that I was asked when I last ate, not sure what would have happened if I'd had breakfast just before going to the hospital?

Hospital room: AAH (by a hair). I was in a private room at both hospitals and the facilities were pretty much the same: rooms were around the same size, extra chairs and couches for guests, a small refrigerator, closet/wardrobe to keep stuff in, TV, etc. So it is down to the small stuff, AAH wins out because: the room is newer, AAH provides a room safe for your valuables, hospital gown was softer, and the small refrigerator is stocked with water and juice for your guests.

Nursing staff: Tie, both excellent. Professional, friendly, and never any problems or delays when I called for them.

Cleanliness: Tie. at both places staff came by to clean the rooms and the garbage frequently

Operation: I was unconscious so what can I say? AAH was more serious about patient identity, every step of the way from admissions, the nursing staff, to just outside the operations room, I was always asked to confirm: my name, what procedure I was here for, and then I would be shown the signed consultation form which detailed the procedure and risks and asked to confirm that was my signature. Looks like AAH was really worried about doing the wrong procedure on a patient. Was it overkill? Can't say. Guess one cannot be too careful with these things.

Food: unfair to make a comparison. I was at AAH for wisdom teeth extraction so my meals were limited to liquids and ice cream while at Doha Clinic I could avail myself of their full menu. Doha Clinic provided me 4 meals a day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack) and the food was pretty good, for example one meal was roast chicken on biriani rice, green salad, soup, cooked vegetables, another salad similar to a Greek salad, and dessert. Sometimes I couldn't even finish the meal there was so much food. AAH did ask me if I was having guests pop by and when so that if I wanted they could prepare meals for them (!!), something Doha Clinic didn't ask me about.

Postoperation consultations: unfair to make a comparison. on the face of it AAH was better as the dental surgeon came by when he said he would, checked the wounds, provided an update as to what he thought and asked if I had any questions, at Doha Clinic sometimes the surgeon came by as scheduled, sometimes not. BUT at AAH I was dealing with a dental surgeon while at Doha Clinic I was dealing with a general surgeon who was on call for emergency surgeries. I do not think it's fair to criticise a surgeon who does emergency surgeries for not stopping by my room at a pre-arranged time - he may have had to save a life instead. And given the number of car accidents in Doha I'm willing to bet there are a lot of emergencies to deal with.

Both places also had a Guest Relations person come by to see if everything was okay and if I had any questions or concerns to either let them know or call the nurses.

So there you have it, both places were pretty good. Some people in Doha may be drawn to AAH instead of Doha Clinic because the clinic side of DC is crowded (the hospital part isn't though) and the building is not as new or fancy as AAH, but it certainly did an adequate job and had standards comparable to AAH. I was treated well at both places.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Where are all the Qataris?

Something I have found unusual about Qataris is that the society tends to keep to itself and its own activities. the Government spends a lot of money to bring activities to the country but for the most part the local citizens do not attend them. The tennis tournaments, the Tribeca film festival, speedboat races, heck I'm not sure if any of the Qataris I know have been to the Museum of Islamic Art yet! The Qatar Natural History Group meetings tend not to have any locals in attendance either.

That's not to say Qataris avoid all events, a prominent football (soccer) match will have the locals out in droves and festivities such as National Day has thousands of Qataris on the Corniche celebrating. They just tend to skip events that a lot of Westerners find interesting. It just makes me wonder why the Government places an emphasis on bringing events here that citizens are ambivalent about (not that I'm complaining mind you, it is great that I can go see all of these things.) I was even talking to a Qatari colleague who is going on a trip to a major European city and he plans to do some shopping but not go to any of the museums or other highlights. To each their own I suppose. My friend Abdulla had no problem with wandering around Japan experiencing all of its unusual things but told me the travel will likely end once he gets married because most Qatari women do not like to travel. Maybe Qataris as a society are just not as adventurous as other cultures and prefer to stay at home? I'll have to ask about that.

Anyway, for the benefit of any newcomers reading the blog, where can you usually find a lot of Qataris?

Coffee Shops
Restaurants and cafes of five-star hotels
Souq Waqif
Beaches where jet skiing is popular
Parks (they love going to the parks with their children)
The sand dunes near the Inland Sea
Local football matches; and
Mosques (naturally)

I'm sure there are other places but until such time as my Arabic improves enough to read the local Arabic newspapers I will not know what the local citizenry are up to

Monday, November 02, 2009

Tribeca -- the final day

Last film:

A Serious Man -- the Coen Brothers

Attendance: 100%

The latest film by the Coen Brothers is about a Jewish professor in the late 1960s to whom a sequence of bad events happens to. Like all of the Coens' films the strength is in the off-beat characters and dialogue. It was entertaining, funny and also unconventional, something I like in movies. The rabbis the main character talks to were a riot.

Rating -- 5. My favourite film that I saw in the festival so why not give it top marks.

So that's it for the film festival. I suppose my biggest disappointment was that there were not a lot of locals attending the festival. The Qatari Government and other foundations spend a lot of money to bring events such as this and the tennis to Doha but few citizens bother to go. Shame. Maybe in time more locals will appreciate these great events.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Tribeca -- day two

Okay, I saw two films:

Buried Secrets -- Raja Amari

Attendance: maybe 30%! Apparently the note board said the film was sold out! Wish I knew what was going on here.

This is a Tunisian film, in Arabic and French with English subtitles. Apparently its original title is not "Buried Secrets" but it is called that for the English version because the translation of its title is the same as an already existing English-language film. A lady and her two daughters (one in her late 20s, the other maybe 15) live in the servants quarters in a basement of an abandoned mansion in the countryside. Problems occur when the owners of the mansion return and the ladies keep their existence a secret because they figure they will be thrown out. To complicate things the youngest daughter isn't quite all-there mentally and having grown up in a traditional family is fascinated by their modern clothes and ways. She starts sneaking through the house and messing with the owner's girlfriend's stuff, watching them when they are in bed etc.

From there it descends into a dark tale. Things get more twisted as the film goes on. It definitely didn't turn out the way I expected.

There was also a brief nude scene, which was nice to see as it showed that Qatar was not censoring any of the films at the festival. Had the film been shown in the cinema in Qatar normally that scene would have been cut. The film was rated "PG-18" though, perhaps to warn locals. I think some Muslim ladies did leave part way through the film. In North America the nudity probably would have earned the film PG-13, I'm not sure it would have been a big enough deal to even get "R". Some European television shows more.

The Director turned up to answer questions but we weren't told this until the credits had finished, by which point almost everyone had left. It was only because I had been chatting with a friend about the film that I was even around. So the Director had a Q&A with maybe a dozen people, I kind of felt bad for her. I hope she didn't know how low the turnout was for the screening.

Rating: 3.5 (though that didn't exist on the rating card so I rounded up to a 4). I was entertained, the film got unexpectedly dark and weird, sort of like how Fargo started out as a conventional crime movie but sure didn't end up that way. There were some pretty big plot holes though, which detracted from it being a great film. I won't go into the details, if dark movies are your thing then this movie is probably worth a look.

Harry Brown -- Daniel Barber

Attendance: around 90%. That's better!

Michael Caine plays Harry Brown, a pensioner living in some decrepit Council Housing project in London. The local gang of drug-dealing teenagers terrorises the place. One day they go too far and Harry takes matters into his own hands. Essentially it's a vigilante action-movie. Nuff said.

Caine does a good job and the movie should be decent box-office as it delivers what one would expect from a vigilante movie. A couple of scenes in the movie were a bit over the top and unrealistic, which was unfortunate. One example, Harry wants a gun so he shows up at the doorway of a guy who illegally sells guns. The guy has no idea who Harry is but has no problem letting an old, well-dressed man who knocks on the door into his building, past his huge marijuana grow-op, and into a room where people are injecting heroin and doing lines of cocaine, in order to pull out a bag of guns to see what Harry would like to buy. I immediately thought, "For a local drug-heavy he seems to be a complete idiot." The film just seemed to need to establish that this man was B-A-D, it's not enough that he sells guns, he also needs to be into every kind of drug (oh yeah, and also point out that he likes to have sex with drugged-up underage girls too). This guy's badness was pretty much all laid out in two minutes of filmtime, to a complete stranger. Uh-huh. Whatever. Happens all the time I'm sure.

Rating: 3.5 (again rounded up to 4) but now that I think about it I wish I had given it a 3 instead. Both it and Buried Secrets have some plot holes or moments of unbelievability but Buried Secrets was more unconventional so I think I'd place it slightly ahead of Harry Brown. I like movies that try to be different. People who like vigilante movies will not be disappointed with Harry Brown though.

One more movie to go, showing tonight.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Doha Tribeca Film Festival

This weekend saw the launch of the first Doha Tribeca Film Festival. Now I really like film festivals so when tickets went on sale three weeks ago friends and I ambitiously purchased tickets to see eight movies over three days.

Now I'm still not feeling 100% but I am going back to work next Monday so I figure going to the film festival would be a good test to see how I was doing. Friday was our busiest day as we had tickets to see four movies. I wound up going to three but I think that overdid it a little -- I should have just gone to two films and then rested at home. Today I am scheduled to go to three films but I'm just going to go to the first two.

So, what did I see? And what did I think? Here's the movies I saw and the rating I gave them, based on the viewers voting cards that they gave to every attendee, five-point rating scale, with a one being "not recommended" to a five being "highly recommended".

Capitalism: a Love Story -- Michael Moore

Attendance: 100% -- full house

I have of course seen his documentaries before and I will give him credit -- whatever you think about the content at least his films are not dull. Sometimes a bit theatrical, a lot of times pulling on your heartstrings with anecdotal stories of tragedy and from this leaping to broad conclusions, occasional glossing over of facts, but his films are entertaining to watch. This one is no exception.

Rating: 4. I would recommend people see the movie as it is interesting, but do not accept what he says at face value. If you're concerned about an issue that he brought up please do additional research afterward.

Bright Star -- Jane Campion

Attendance: ~75%, surprised me that there were a number of seats available. Well, I guess this is the first year of the film festival.

Period piece set around 1818 in England, a romance between the poet Keats and the young lady who lived next door.

Man, was it boring.

Now before anyone gets all dismissive, figuring I didn't like it because men generally don't watch English period pieces, take a look at my previous blog post at the movies I watched while recovering. You see Sense and Sensibility there? The period piece with Hugh Grant? Yup, I do watch the occasional period piece, not ashamed to admit it.

Sense and Sensibility was a decent movie. Bright Star sucked.

No chemistry, most of the supporting cast had no personality, there was not much intrigue or drama. Dull. I'm not even sure why Keats would have fallen for the lady since she generally comes across as a bit of a bitch. At one point in the movie when Keats was leaving for the summer I was whispering "Run man! Run!"

Rating: 1. The lady's family had a cat and it stole every scene that it was in, what does that tell you?

Kobe Doing Work -- Spike Lee

Attendance: ~30-40%!! I definitely was not expecting such a low turnout. No idea why, the movie was at 8 p.m. so it's not like was a midnight screening.

A documentary on basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, at least I thought that's what it was going to be. Actually the film covers a Lakers game with Kobe providing a voice-over narrative. What was he thinking at the time, why did he do that move, what does he think of this player and that player etc. That's literally the movie.

It turns out that Kobe is an interesting speaker. He's didn't have the attitude I expected, he was mature and modest, but not so modest as to be annoying. Let's face it he is currently the best basketball player in the league, you know it, he knows it, and he knows you know it, so he doesn't spend time going on about how good he is. Tactics, strategy, team communication, are covered instead. After listening to Kobe for an hour and a half he seems like a down-to-earth, nice guy.

Rating: 3. While the movie was not dull per se since basketball games are usually high-energy I think I can only recommend this movie to a basketball fan. This is a fanboy movie. If basketball is not your thing you're better off watching Hoop Dreams if you want to see a basketball movie. Spike Lee may have directed but in truth pretty much anyone could have set up 6-8 cameras to film a basketball game so fans of Spike Lee movies I don't think will be that impressed.

Two more films today, I'll post my reviews after.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Been spending the week sitting at home recuperating. Laying around all day gets dull after a while. So what have I been doing with my time?

Movies I've watched:

The Big Lebowski (Dude!)
Powder Blue (last movie with Patrick Swayze, which is a shame because it was not that great)
Pan's Labyrinth
Apocalypse Now
Burn after Reading (completely surprised by what happened to Brad Pitt!)
The Lives of Others (German film, definitely see it)
Futurama -- Benders Big Score
Sense and Sensibility (and I'm not afraid to admit it)
The Green Mile
The Pursuit of Happyness
a Polysics documentary

And I also watched a number of episodes of the Chappelle Show, and a Pablo Francisco special

Maybe I should read a book instead. Oh wait, I've been doing that too:

Empires of the Word -- Nicholas Ostler
The Varieties of Scientific Experience -- Carl Sagan
The White Castle -- Orhan Pamuk
Multicultural Manners -- Norine Dresser
The Confessions of Lady Nijo -- Lady Nijo

Maybe next I'll start on a re-read of The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins, and study some Arabic as well.

Should be back at work sometime next week, which I think is a good thing because I am going a little stir crazy.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Happy Birthday Aiden!

In other news it is my nephew Aiden's birthday today! He's a cute little fella, his favourite activity is sharing all of his toys and things with everyone. He would diligently grab anything within reach and hand it to you or someone else nearby. If you then handed it back he would either give it back to you or take it to someone else to give to them.

Below is one of my favourite pictures of us, though he is a bit older now than in the picture. I have no idea who took it but it is priceless.

Don’t we look Canadian!

Anyway Aiden I hope you have a happy birthday, have Mum and Dad give you a kiss for me.

More health

Man, what a week. I was informed by the doctor not so long ago that I would need to have a minor surgical procedure done (no, not the wisdom teeth that I mentioned in my last post, something else). Last week the doctor decided that it was time to get this taken care of so I had to go visit a surgeon to schedule it. Those of you familiar with this blog may recall that earlier this year I had another surgery done and I had remarked on how fast it was for the surgery to be scheduled. This was no different -- I had the consultation on a Thursday and the surgery was scheduled for the following Tuesday. Everything went fine, I was in the hospital for about 48 hours, and now I'm resting at home and taking some medications. Plenty of people have come by or called to see how I was doing which is nice.

Next month I have surgery for the wisdom teeth. That means I'll have undergone three surgeries in a year, previously I don't recall ever having surgery in my life! I guess I'm officially getting old. *sigh*

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wisdom teeth.

I went to the dentist the other day for my usual cleaning and she decided to take an x-ray, the first one I had had since I arrived in Qatar. It showed what I already knew (though my dentist didn't), that my bottom wisdom teeth were pushing against the teeth next to them. She was surprised that I was not in pain. I think about five years ago another dentist exclaimed the same thing to me but my wisdom teeth had never bothered me. But now there was a new twist -- a cavity had formed where a wisdom tooth was pressing up against another tooth, and there was no way she would be able to get to it without a wisdom tooth being removed. That and at the rate it was pushing into the tooth it won't be too much longer before I'm in real pain. *sigh*.

So I had an appointment with the dental surgeon today. All four wisdom teeth are have to come out. Even worse it has to be under a general anaesthetic. You see one of my wisdom teeth is almost sideways and is practically resting against a nerve in my jaw. If he tries to straighten the tooth to pull it out it will press against that nerve (which I guess is bad), so he will have to cut the tooth into horizontal slices to get it out. If that's what he wants to do then a general anaesthetic sounds like a good idea to me!

Appointment is mid-November. Apparently I will have to stay overnight at the hospital then sit at home for five days with painkillers. Ugh.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Qatar H1N1 Update

While I was away on vacation most schools closed for a week due to H1N1 concerns. Not sure why exactly, maybe there were a few sick kids discovered in the schools. People might be getting a bit more nervous now, I noticed that small bottles of hand sanitiser are a lot harder to find and the newspapers have frequent updates as to when the vaccine will be available.

I've not found updated info as to the number of cases in the country but based on those older estimates by the Ministry of Health (average of 25 new cases a week) I assume the number of cases are at around 600 to 700 now.

Japan and travelling Muslims

As you know I just spent two weeks travelling through Japan with a Qatari friend. He is a devout Muslim which meant we had to make sure that he did not eat pork or anything with alcohol.

Avoiding the latter was not too difficult as Japanese cuisine does not cook with alcohol (or at least the dishes I know about). The Japanese love to drink beer or sake but it is easy to not have it if you do not want to. Pork was of more of an issue. The Japanese like to combine many things together in their food. Ramen, donburi, okonomiyaki, teppenyaki, all of these combine a lot of things together so we had to make sure there would not be pork in the dish every time we visited a restaurant. Thankfully my friend had memorised the Japanese phrase for "I do not eat pork" and no one seemed too fussed about it, perhaps because a lot of Japanese are Buddhist so maybe many are vegetarian. Good thing too since for some Japanese dishes it is difficult to tell what is in it. While pork is not as widely used in Japan as it would in other countries like China we did not have much luck at ramen restaurants, apparently pork is used in almost all of their dishes. We even had to walk out of one ramen place because they had nothing available for my friend the eat. Other restaurants were fine, with the exception of sushi places every restaurant had some pork dishes but they also had plenty of other foods available my friend could eat. Still had to be careful though, I even ordered a "burger" that I had never heard of from a Japanese McDonald's and it turned out to be pork, or at least I think it was. But in the two weeks I only recall one instance where my friend was served something that we were told was chicken but I thought was actually pork (so he did not eat the meat just to be on the safe side).

Fish was of course plentiful as it is the main Japanese meat. Fish of all types are halal (acceptable for Muslims) so a Muslim has a wide range of dining options.

Monday, October 05, 2009

I'm back

Okay made it back safe and sound!

I had a great time. Japan really is a different world from anywhere else but at the same time really good to travel through since the country is quite modern and no one hassles you.

Rather than fill the blog with tons and tons of description (it was a two-week trip so really I could go on forever about it), here are some snippets but I'll leave it to you to Google what the heck I am talking about:

-- went to Kyoto, Tokyo, and Osaka
-- in Japan it takes five people to help you to exchange money
-- at the airport there was an elderly gentleman whose job appeared to be to bow at everyone getting on the escalator
-- in Kyoto we stayed in a traditional ryokan (tatami mat floors, futons etc)
-- I like yukatas. I bought one.
-- saw tons of temples and the old Imperial Palace
-- vending machines are everywhere outdoors, including ones for beer or cigarettes. In North America the life expectancy of an outdoor beer or cigarette vending machine would be sundown.
-- okonomiyaki is usually topped with some kind of fish flakes that shrivel and move when the okonomiyaki is put on a hot plate so it looks like your food is topped with some living thing
-- if you go shopping for pillows the store will have a bed for you to try them out
-- no one hassles you, to the point of even ignoring you. Even Japanese standing on street corners handing out flyers/brochures usually will not give you one.
-- the bullet train system is amazing. Kyoto to Tokyo (~550 km) took around 2 1/2 hours, including stops. There were trains about every 10 minutes.
-- the Harajuku style is starting to go out of fashion. Short skirts with boots is the new thing for ladies.
-- the Japanese really go high-tech when it comes to toilets, the most elaborate one we encountered had 12 buttons and a heated seat.
-- ate at a restaurant where you are led in handcuffs to a jail cell that contains your table. Drinks are served in chemistry flasks with dry ice to give them that spooky fog.
-- natto is pretty good!
-- I discovered I was born in the Year of the Dog.
-- Toyota has this really cool centre where you can test drive vehicles, use simulators, and view some of their high tech experimental devices like robots that can play the trumpet.
-- if you go to Roppongi a black guy named Tom toting for some club, who dresses a bit like a pimp, apparently has "got what you need".
-- went to Shibuya and crossed that famous road crossing where thousands of people cross all at once
-- Super Kids Land sells the widest range of BB weapons I have ever seen.
-- I advise looking at every vending machine and trying any weird drinks it offers, it is both adventurous and entertaining. Jelly Coffee was the weirdest thing we tried.
-- a clerk at a heavy metal shop got bent out of shape because I didn't take my shoes off when using the change room
-- yet no one cares if a man reads pornographic comics on the subway, even sitting next to women.
-- there are cafes in Akhiabara where the waitresses all dress in sexy French maid outfits (cafes, as in plural)
-- everyone likes the bow and thank you for the most minor things
-- but they usually will not give up their seats for ladies or an elderly person
-- got lost at Shinjuku Station trying to find a certain Metro line and wound up at a different station, without having gone above ground
-- look at the schedules for Kabuki plays well in advance. The theatre is not open every day.
-- same with bunraku
-- same with Noh theatres
-- and the Kyoto Museum
-- and sumo wrestler stables
-- I drank a lot of Fibe-Mini
-- "Please teach the commodity wanting it with the cash register". (I have no idea what it means either.)
-- went to a traditional tea ceremony. Be sure to stop to admire the flower and calligraphy when you get in.
-- there is a (smaller) replica of the Statue of Liberty in Tokyo
-- Best Internet cafes I've ever seen. Free coffee and sodas, lounge chairs, manga library you are allowed to browse through for free, even private booths where two people can sit on a couch and use separate computers
-- Eleeno watches are cool
-- apparently having a large statue of a dog pulling down a boy's underwear is someone's idea of a great way to advertise that your business is a restaurant.
-- if a store gives you a complementary can of Final Fantasy Chaos Potion don't drink it (blah!)
-- but feel free to keep the can.
-- considering Japanese tourists are well known for taking tons of pictures wherever they go it is ironic that a lot of places in Japan have signs telling you not to take pictures there. Including a shoe repair kiosk.
-- some restaurants have instead of a menu a huge bank of buttons somewhat like a vending machine. You put the money in the machine, press what you want, then sit down and the waitress will bring it to you once the kitchen cooks it.
-- Polysics are cool!
-- the Japanese really hate wet umbrellas being brought indoors. Stands were you can lock your umbrella, machines that will wrap it in plastic, even an "umbrella dryer", are in use in most buildings.
-- 10 hours is a brutally long flight

Okay I think this sums up everything pretty well. I had a great time, everyone should check out Japan if they get the chance.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Vacation time

Okay everyone, Ramadan is almost at an end. Thanks to the 3-day holiday to celebrate Eid I've turned it into a two week vacation. This summer's destination...


I'm going with Abdulla, a Qatari friend of mine. He always wanted to see Japan, and I always regretted not going to Kyoto when I went there back in 1995, so we decided what the heck, let's go!

Qatar Airways flies direct from Doha to Osaka, from the airport we go straight to Kyoto and are staying in a traditional Ryokan for six nights, then we train it over to Tokyo for five days before returning to Osaka for a day before catching the plane home. It should be a great time. My friend Serdar lived in Tokyo for six years so gave us a number of great tips about the city.

I'll post when I return, see you in two weeks.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Islam & Marriage

Everyone knows that under Islam a man can have up to four wives. Not surprisingly, most don't. As one Bahraini taxi driver told me, "*groan* Don't do it!! Big headache!!"

Under Islam if a man has more than one wife he has to treat them equally. If he gives one a gift he has to give the other a gift, if one has her own house the others have to have their own houses and so on. The man also has to pay a dowry to a woman that he marries, and pay for the wedding, so that gets expensive. These days, at least in the Arabian Peninsula, one generally has to be wealthy to have multiple wives. (I'm also still not sure how a man breaks the news to his first wife that he is going to have a second wife. In the West you would likely "accidentally" fall on a knife in the middle of the night with that kind of news.)

But most westerners do not know that there are other types of Islamic marriages as well. These are not as well known as a traditional marriage we are used to but certain types of marriage are occasionally used in some areas of the Islamic world:

1) Mu'tah marriages. This is practised amongst Shi'a Muslims, under Sunni Islam it is forbidden. It is in essence a temporary marriage. Marriages in Islam are a contract between a man and a woman, and in some parts of the world such as the Gulf the contract to be quite specific (is she allowed to work? How much bride-price she will receive and so on). In a Mu'tah Marriage the marriage contract has a specified ending time, once that time is reached the marriage is over, no divorce proceedings required.

Now I believe such a structure could be used for very temporary marriages, such as a day or a week, but I'm not sure how prevailant that is. The bride still gets a bride-price of course. Sunni Islam forbids Mu'tah because they believe the intention of a marriage contract is that the couple intends to be together forever and putting a fixed end-date on a marriage violates that principle.

Wiki has a good articleand there is a huge paper on Mu'tah here.

2) Misyar marriages. This type of marriage is practised amongst some Sunnis. In a misyar the woman gives up the right to be treated equal to the man's other wives and may give up other rights such as reduced bride-price etc. Unlike a Mu'tah marriage there is no time limit. Apparently some women who are widows or divorcees agree to this type of marriage to get some companionship, in other cases it is used as a means by which a man can get to better know a woman without violating any religious prescriptions -- they will be able to go out together and he would be able to see her without a veil. By being able to "date" so to speak the misyar could lead to a standard marriage. Apparently you can even have a misyar where the contract stipulates no sexual activity will take place between the couple.

A friend forwarded me an interesting article from the Guardian on misyar. There is also a wiki article. Misyars can be controversial, some imams frown upon them as they believe many just use them as a way to have a boyfriends/girlfriends without really being interested in a long-term marriage commitment. A Qatari friend of mine said misyar was not usually practised there but it is not forbidden.

3) Bride exchanges. This occurs in Central Asian countries such as Turkey and Pakistan. Two families, who usually don't have a lot of money to be paying bride-prices for their sons to get married, agree that Family A will marry their son to Family B's daughter in exchange for Family B's son being allowed to marry a daughter from Family A. So a brother and sister from Family A marry a sister and brother (respectively) from Family B. The agreed bride-price paid to each bride is exactly the same so in the end the families are no worse off monetarily.

Exchanging brides can be problematic if the two marriages are treated as a linked-exchange, which means that if one couple divorces the other couple has to divorce, even if they were happy together. There can also be retribution consequences. If one man abuses his wife, her family might take revenge by abusing his sister. Authorities in Turkey are trying to encourage people who enter into bride exchanges to make them "unlinked" so that if one couple is happy together they do not have to divorce if the other couple divorced. I am not sure how common is types of marriages are in Central Asia except for Pakistan were about 10-15% of marriages are due to bride exchanges.

Al Jazeera had an interesting documentary on this type of marriage a while back but I do not think it is available online.

4) Bride kidnapping. I saw a documentary on this and it is apparently common in Kryzgystan (sp?), mostly in rural areas. Bride kidnapping is exactly that -- when a guy wants to get married his best man and a group of guys goes out and finds a woman that they think is suitable and kidnap her. This is not some cute custom, the woman has no idea what is going on. She is kidnapped by a bunch of strange men and brought to some house where she is married to a stranger. From what I could tell in the documentary when the bride is brought to the house a couple of ladies just wave some pieces of white linen over her and that's it, she's married. Some of them are resigned to their fate, others flee back to their families anyway even though they are "spoiled".

Now while these people profess to be Muslims from even my limited understanding of Islam bride kidnapping is not in any way Islamic. Under Islam it is quite clear that a woman cannot be married against her will. I also cannot see how kidnapping people is justified anyway. There is also no contract, and I don't think there is any bride-price paid. I suspect this is some cultural tradition in Kryzgystan that predates Islam and the people shoehorn it into their beliefs somehow. It was a really sad documentary to watch, a Kryzgystan group trying to get rid of the practice estimates that up to 50% of rural marriages occur in this way. Ugh. The sooner this type of practice is gone the better.

That about covers it. One day I hope to be able to attend a Qatari wedding (which will be a standard traditional marriage, not one of the ones mentioned above).

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Annoying things

Since I'm in an annoyed mood this afternoon (long story that I am not going to get into) let's entertain the internet world at large by going over 10 weird things that annoy me:

1) Stores that sell chess sets and the displayed sets are not set up properly, like having Knights where Rooks should be or are putting the Queen on the wrong colour square. If you are going to sell chess sets at least learn the proper way to set up the pieces!

2) Speedos, you can search through this blog for the whole story on that. I will reluctantly wear them if for some reason I am swimming somewhere where they are standard issue (like some public swimming pools in France). Thankfully that hasn't happened yet and I doubt you'd want to see me in them.

3) Having two news anchors sitting side-by-side giving the news. It always seems to be a man and a woman. When did this trend happen? It seems to me about six or seven years ago the news always had one anchor, nowadays so many seem to have two and they annoyingly exchange witty banter and finish each other's sentences. Thankfully Al Jazeera hasn't succumbed to this annoying trend.

4) Tomatoes. Sorry, just don't like them. I inevitably pick them out of sandwiches.

5) Bluegrass country music. The twang sound grates on my ears.

6) Aerosol deodorant. I had one once and as soon as I'd spray it I had to leave the room as I could feel myself breathing in some of the mist. Blah. Why do some people prefer aerosol over stick?

7) Slush. Not a problem here of course but I always considered trying to walk along slushy roads and sidewalks to be one of the most depressing times during winter in Canada. I was never in a good mood after walking on slushy sidewalks.

8) People who write or use highlighters in library books. If you want to do that to your own books I have no problem with that -- it's your book -- but it always annoys me when I open a library book and someone has circled/underlined/highlighted parts.

9) Pieces of fruit on a chocolate desert (this is just a minor annoyance though). Sorry, I like my chocolate "pure". I always pick the fruit off and eat it before starting in on the desert.

10) Movies that contain scenes with really bad science or a gaping hole in logic. Yes I realise that these are just movies and some elements are fantasy but that does not excuse blatant ignorance of science and it really irks me. I probably annoy my friends when I point these things out during the movie. Examples: Twister (surviving an F-5 Tornado by using a belt to attach yourself to a small pipe), Armageddon (pretty much everything in the entire movie), the Core (ditto), the Saint (the e-mail scene), any scene involving computer hacking where security systems are bypassed simply by the character randomly typing on the keyboard for a few seconds, and so on.

How about you? Go on, let it out.

Monday, September 07, 2009

That ol' H1N1

A few days ago the Health Ministry, in an article regarding whether schools should be closed, noted that the number of cases of H1N1 in Qatar was around 450 with about five new cases being reported every day. That would mean at this time there are around 470 cases, averaging 33.6 cases for every 100,000 people. I believe there has still only been one death though, which is good news as it means that the virus is still relatively mild.

33.6 per 100,000 is starting to approach the rate of cases in most western nations:

In Canada that would represent around 10,700 cases,
In Britain that would represent 23,400 cases,
In the United States that would represent around 100,000 cases

One can hope that the rate of new cases in Qatar will peak soon and start declining. I am assuming it will be a couple of months before a vaccine reaches here.

As for school closures the Health Ministry advised that schools should remain open. The Ministry did issue an order that all barbers/hairdressers must wear masks while working, and when I went for a haircut yesterday sure enough all the barbers were wearing masks.

Saturday, September 05, 2009


Okay, I'm back safe and sound.

I hate Switzerland -- in an envious way. It's green, pretty, clean, nice scenery, excellent Metro and train systems. Shame I don't live there but I'd need to be a millionaire to afford it. Switzerland is probably one of the most expensive countries on earth. Yep, more expensive than Paris I found. Just to give you an idea a super-sized Big Mac combo would cost you about US$13, and a 75 sq metre apartment is around $450,000. Lunch in a regular restaurant would be $30 at a minimum.

I spent my time in Basel for the seminar. I had heard that Basel was more of an industrial city so was not as impressive as other parts of Switzerland. Well if it is I wonder what the other parts of Switzerland are like because the city was pretty impressive to me. The old city, with its 14th and 15th century homes overlooking the Rhine River, was great to wander around. It reminded me somewhat of Bratislava.

I landed at the airport in Zurich and the train station was on the bottom floor of the airport so it was easy to catch a train to Basel, which was a little more than an hour away. My hotel was across the street from the train station and only about 150m from where the seminar was being held so it was really convenient. Even more surprising when I checked in they gave me a ticket which allowed me free use of all buses and trams in the city for the length of my stay! Does anywhere else in the world do something like this?

Whether was generally cool, in the mid-20s, and it rained a number of times which was great. I hadn't seen a decent rain for at least six months. The seminar organiser was a little amused that I wanted it to rain while I was in Basel. Even better, when it rained I was always in a cafe, bar, or in my hotel, so I was able to enjoy rain without being caught in it and getting soaked. English was widely spoken and in the occasional place where it wasn't my limited French was fine. I hope they pay waitresses and store clerks well because as far as I can tell you need to know at least three to five languages to communicate with most people who come into your store/restaurant: German, Swiss German, French, English, and Italian. I popped into a bookstore and was looking at their directory trying to decipher the German when a clerk walked up to help me and immediately shifted to English to point out what I was looking for (their English-language science fiction books).

I also found it amusing that local beer was around the same price as bottled water. Hmmmmm, should I have water or a Swiss beer? It was a tough call.

So I had a chance to wander around, took some pictures, and had a nice dinner in a Swiss restaurant in the old city courtesy of the seminar organisers. I bought some chocolate and cheese for home (no alcohol of course) and had an uneventful flight back. I miss Switzerland already.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Off on a business trip to attend a seminar at the Financial Stability Institute (FSI) in Basel Switzerland. The FSI is an educational centre for regulators initially developed by the Bank of International Settlements for educating banking regulators but has since expanded to providing seminars and training for insurance and securities regulators as well. I am attending a three-day seminar looking at reinsurance and other types of specialist risk transfer strategies.

I'll post again when I return. No chance I will be seeing Basel's most famous resident, Roger Federer, since he will be at the US Open. Shame, it would be really cool to be walking along a street in Basel and see him eating in a restaurant or something.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


At home I have a couple of shelves where I keep little mementos, photos, and other items that I picked up during my travels or are given to me as gifts. Looking at it now it is interesting to look at the items and recall their history:

• United Nations desk flag -- a souvenir of when I visited the UN building in New York
• two Remembrance Day poppies, British style. Can't remember where exactly I had picked these up, I have kept them so that I will have a poppy handy when it approaches Remembrance Day since they are not widely distributed here in Qatar
• pewter clamshell for holding business cards -- received in Dubai at a conference.
• Three Christmas cards from friends over the years, two from Doha and one from my friends Knut & Petra in Bermuda. My cleaner sometimes tapes them up on the wall of the shelf when he sees them loose there.
• One wooden recorder (the instrument), Slovakian. Given to me by my Slovak friend Martin as a going away present when I left Bermuda.
• Small Egyptian ankh, might be some type of soft stone like sandstone. From a merchant in Luxor.
• Empty box for holding a small wooden box for use as a business card holder. The wooden box is currently on my desk at work and has the faces of Chinese opera characters on the top. The empty box has a silk interior and is labelled " The World Congress of Scientific Inquiry and Human Well-Being: Improving Science Spirits and Building Harmony Society (no, I am not accidentally misspelling or missing any words). This was a science/critical thinking conference that I attended in Beijing in 2007.
• birth announcement of my friends Carrie and Kamahl's daughter
• stuffed toy, Panda wearing a blue silk Chinese apron -- purchased at the airport in Shanghai as I had some small bills of Chinese currency I wanted to get rid of.
• Goodbye card from the Bermuda Monatery Authority signed by the staff. Karen in the Communications Department made the card herself using pictures of me taken over the years at work functions and in the office (the cover is a picture of me sleeping on a couch in the breakout room, someone had made decaf coffee that day and not told anyone so by the afternoon I had a splitting headache from caffeine withdrawal!! I took some aspirin and lay down for a second on the couch. I fell asleep and people immediately called Karen over to take a picture)
• five pictures of family members, mostly of my niece but one photo of my brother's wedding. (I do have some pictures of my nephew Aiden but they are on the desk at work.)
• Small silver decorations (6-7cm) in two frames, one of a shisha that I received at a conference in Dubai, the other of an Omani dagger with a sheath, purchased in Oman.
• A tray containing items gathered from various Qatar Natural History Group field trips:
o five desert roses, ranging in size from 5 to 25 cm
o two fossilised shark teeth
o three fossilised shells about 2-3 cm in size
• carved wooden box, Nepalese -- given to me by my friend Mary when she stayed over in Doha for a few days on her way back to London from Nepal. She had been in Nepal teaching secretarial skills to teenage girls at an orphanage. I use the box for holding the contact details of various friends.
• Two iron spikes from the Al Boom restaurant in Kuwait City, a large wooden boat that now serves as a floating restaurant. They give you the spikes as souvenirs.
• A set of wooden salt & pepper shakers, purchased from a market stall in Poprad, Slovakia
• a small stone urn carved to resemble a canopic jar with the head of Horus. Purchased from a merchant in Luxor.
• A thin metal ashtray, carved with a picture of a camel in the desert and my name in Arabic -- from Tunisia. A Tunisian-French colleague got married there and brought these ashtrays back everyone in the office.
• . . . and a partridge in a pear tree! (just kidding)

As time goes on I'm sure I will add more things, and this does not include other items I have from Bermuda that I keep in another part of the apartment.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Spent a bit of time on the weekend rereading what I consider one of the most bizarre, yet interesting, books -- The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (from A to B and Back Again). Basically it is random musings from the King of Pop Art, and if he had lived in this decade it would probably be an internet blog. The guy's mind worked in very weird ways. Here's a sample, from three different parts of the book:

American money is very well-designed, really. I like it better than any other kind of money. I've thrown it in the East River down by the Staten Island ferry just to see it float.

I believe in living in one room. One empty room with just a bed, a tray, and a suitcase . . . . Everything is more glamorous when you do it in bed, anyway. Even peeling potatoes.

But being famous isn't all that important. If I weren't famous, I wouldn't have been shot for being Andy Warhol. Maybe I would have been shot for being in the Army. Or maybe I would be a fat schoolteacher. How do you ever know?

Now a lot of what he writes about I disagree with as he embraces materialism and fame, and sometimes borders on the obsession with brands and being rich, people looking rich, or how fascinating people who are rich and famous are (he must mention Elizabeth Taylor at least two dozen times). Of course, this type of thinking was the inspiration for his most famous works and I must admit a lot of his perceptions really hit the mark about American Culture. If you get the chance to track this book down, read it. You will probably finish it and wonder what his life must have been like. He really was on a completely different wavelength from most people.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


The holy month of Ramadan has started. For the next 28 or 29 days Muslims will be fasting from sunrise to sunset, and all restaurants in Qatar will be closed throughout the day. For us non-fasters that means brown-bagging it to work every day, and not having any water or coffee at your desk. The ubiquitous snacks and candies that are in every office have been put away. On the bright side the traffic in the mornings is better than usual but you do not want to be on the road when the sun is setting -- that is when Muslims are racing home so that they can break their fast with their families. I always felt that the driving was a little nuts here but imagine it when most of the drivers have not had anything to eat or drink all day and are in a rush (more of a rush than usual). Don't go out onto the roads until after the sun sets!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Karis's Birthday!

It is my niece Karis's birthday today! Let's do a little photomontage to celebrate from when I was last in Canada.

There she is!

And there she is hugging Daddy!

And there she is at the mall, where she grabbed this and started exclaiming she was a "Hootchie Mama" (I am not kidding. I figured someone in the mall was going to call social services.)

Whew, what an exhausting day!

Happy birthday Karis! Have some cake for me.

Love, Uncle Glen

Monday, August 17, 2009

Weighing evidence

There's been a bit of press coverage recently in the US about people who people deridedly call "Birthers". These are people who believe that President Obama was not actually born in the United States and thus not eligible to be President. This is a criticism that came up during his campaign and the Obama campaign countered by releasing a copy of his birth certificate showing that he was born in Hawaii. Other evidence has also been presented such as the birth announcement in a Hawaiian newspaper, confirmation of his birth by the Hawaiian Government etc. Birthers have fired back that the birth certificate was faked (offering all sorts of analysis is to how they can tell it is fake), government cover-ups and so forth. Never mind that once his candidacy became a possibility you could bet your boots that the Republicans poured over every detail of his life to try to dig up dirt on him. If he had not been born in the US you can bet they would have announced it. Hillary's team would have gone over everything as well. Yet the Birthers persist to this day.

Recently an anonymous source sent a birth certificate to one of the more vocal Birthers claiming it was Obama's birth certificate issued in Kenya. This was quickly hailed by some Birthers as the "smoking gun", but research by others managed to track down its origin -- an Australian birth certificate that a man had posted on a genealogy website, which was altered with Obama's name, Republic of Kenya, and whatever other relevant tidbits of information was needed to create the fake certificate.

This ultimately gets to the point of what I want to say. In this world there are many proponents of alternative views, speculations, and theories about things. Occasionally they are right (Mpemba effect, Watergate) but more often than not the evidence just does not add up and it moves into the realm of conspiracy theories or pseudoscience (JFK assassination, Moon landing hoax, 9/11 conspiracies, Bigfoot, alien abductions, cold fusion). One of the hallmarks of when it moves into the latter is . . .

proponents never subject evidence that supports their view to the same level of scrutiny as evidence which opposes it.

So when Obama's birth certificate is presented and confirmed as legitimate by the Hawaiian government Birthers immediately pour over every square centimetre of the scan, accusing fakery, doing detailed analysis of folds, accusing the Hawaiian government of being involved in the cover-up, and all sorts of stuff. But the moment a certificate which supports their view magically appears, provided by an "anonymous source", it is immediately accepted at face value.

If you see that a group appears to not subject supportive evidence to scrutiny it is a yellow flag that it is some kind of crankdom.

The "intelligent design" folks can follow this as well. Thousands upon thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers exist whose contents support evolutionary theory and they are dismissed by creationists and ID supporters. But if one paper is published that may be construed as supporting their views it is immediately hailed as important and valuable evidence. Shelves of books about evolutionary theory are ignored but many creationists have no problem jumping on a single quote by an evolutionist which could be interpreted as supporting their view (and in fact the quote always turns out to be just an example of quote mining and is not what the speaker meant at all.)

It's sad, but it happens all the time. Best to keep an eye out for instances where people do not appear to be objective in analysing evidence, it could save you a lot of hassle in the long run.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Traditional food

In the last month or so I have had the opportunity to try a number of traditional cuisines. It was not that I was hunting them out per se it just happened that I attended dinners or functions where traditional food was served:

Scottish: One night I was invited to dinner hosted by my friends Carrie and Kamahl. Carrie is Scottish and the main highlights of dinner were black pudding , and haggis with a traditional whisky sauce. Now I had never tried either before so I thought it was pretty cool that I was going to get to try these things for the first time -- especially haggis, which has a reputation in North America as a strange and icky food only eaten by Scots. Not surprisingly both dishes were not weird and they tasted pretty good. Haggis has a lot of oats and barley in it so it does not have a strong meat taste. Far exceeded my expectations. If anyone has a chance to try haggis or a black pudding don't turn it down or wrinkle your face, it is actually good stuff. Would definitely eat them again. (Maybe I should get out to Scotland one day)

Qatari: I was also invited to a Qatari's house one evening for a casual dinner and then watch a movie. There were four of us at dinner which was held in a small separate building called a majlis. In Arab society male visitors are generally not invited into one's home, the host has a separate area outside the home where the men meet. Sometimes it would be a tent, but many Qatari families have built separate small buildings adjacent to the house instead. This majlis consisted of a carpeted area about the size of a standard North American livingroom with cushioned benches lining the walls, a couple of coffee tables, a television, air conditioning (of course), and a washroom.

While we chatted a servant came in and unrolled a large piece of plastic on the floor for the dinner as we would be eating on the floor. Dinner was rice, Arabic bread, and what could best be described as a mild shrimp curry. It's Arabic name escapes me, I'll try to find out. While Qatari food can be what westerners would consider traditional Arabic cuisine (Lamb on rice, kebabs, hummous, etc) there are also a number of dishes with roots in Indian cuisine. The Gulf countries had traded with India for centuries, to the extent that it was only in the last 40 years or so that Qatar ceased using the Rupee as their currency, so many of the Indian spices and cooking techniques were adopted into Qatari cuisine. We sat on the floor and chatted away while eating dinner, the Qataris used their right hand for eating and had graciously provided cutlery for us non-Qataris. Traditionally Arabs eat with their right hand, never the left (you use your left hand for, um, wiping and stuff when you go to the bathroom, remember in the old days there was not a lot of soap and water around in the desert so in the interest of good hygiene Arabs would always eat with their right hand and never touch food with the left). After dinner we sat back on the benches and were served tea and traditional Arabic coffee. Dinner was great as expected, while I had never had that particular dish before I have of course had Arabic cuisine a zillion times while I have been in Qatar.

[A blog post with more Qatari dishes can be found here]

French: naturally during my recent trip to France I had plenty of opportunity to eat French cuisine, primarily at the wedding reception but whenever I was in a restaurant in Paris I always tried to order French food. Coq le vin, foie gras, croissants and pain de chocolat, baguettes, stake tartare, chicken tarragon (is that French?), veal in a cream sauce, a variety of amuse bouche, I had all sorts of things. I can't say I had any bad food the whole time. Aside from the pastries I like meat with the sauces that are a cornerstone of French cuisine. Potatoes and vegetables were not as exciting. I still have no idea why French people tend not to be as overweight as Brits or Americans, if I was French I would be constantly eating meat and pastries.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

H1N1 update

Did I say there are 43 cases? Sorry about that, the number is now 350. Geez, that's increased a little bit since last week . . .

Sunday, August 09, 2009

H1N1 update

The latest H1N1 update is 43 confirmed cases and, sadly, the death of one Qatari man from the flu (though he may have caught the flu in the UAE then came back to Qatar). This puts Qatar around 3.1 cases per 100,000 people, still lower than in most Western nations. I expect cases will start ramping up for the next couple of months then the number of new cases will start to decline, much like in the West. The Qatari government hopes to have thousands of doses of vaccine when it becomes available, probably in October.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Back from Paris

Okay, I'm back! Had a great time in France.

The first three nights I was staying at that Chateau outside of Paris, sharing a room with the groom. Nice place, and it was great to be in the green countryside under comfortable temperatures. I was told when I returned to Qatar that there had been a major dust storm for 2-3 days so it was ironic that I was enjoying the clean air of the French countryside while all my friends and colleagues had to stay indoors because of the dust.

Now in France couples have to get married in a civil ceremony at the town hall. They are allowed to have a religious ceremony afterward but cannot have the religious ceremony until they had done the civil one (the priest needs to see proof that the civil ceremony was done). So the civil ceremony was on Friday and the wedding on Saturday. I did not attend the civil ceremony instead I took the train into Paris and wandered around the neighbourhoods south of the Seine, since I was going to be meeting the now civil-married couple and a large number of their friends for dinner that evening at a restaurant in Saint-Michael. Roamed through the graveyard near Montparnasse, finding graves of famous French people such as Jean-Paul Sartre, then had a snack in the Jardin de Luxembourg before walking on to the Notre Dame Cathedral to join the throng of tourists in the square in front of it. I didn't go in though, the lineups were way too long, so I went to the park behind the cathedral and chilled out for a while watching the people go by, munching on a baguette that I purchased at a boulangerie. (I know it seems like a stereotype to us North Americans but the French really do buy those long baguettes. Every morning I would see people with them).

Paris is such a great city to just wander around, the neighbourhoods look exactly like what Paris looks like in the movies. The city is fairly protectionist when it comes to big chain stores so while you do see the occasional McDonald's etc they are uncommon which allows independently-owned stores to set up. As a result everywhere you go there are interesting shops and cafes. I found a bookstore are dedicated to books about theatre and dance, tiny art galleries exhibiting various abstract works, a shop dedicated to Jules Verne and other authors from the period, and so forth.

After dinner we went back to the Chateau for a good nights sleep since tomorrow was the big religious ceremony. Amusingly the groom and I still shared the room which led me to bug him that while I was flattered I thought it was very weird that his first night of marriage would be spent sharing a room with me!

Well the groom was racked with nerves and apparently didn't sleep much that night (I didn't notice because I slept like a rock). Got him down to breakfast and made him eat something before he was off to get ready as he had to drive into the city. For the rest of us staying at the Chateau a bus was coming by later to take us directly to the Cathedral.

The Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky is located about a five-minute walk north of the Arc de Triomphe in what appeared to be a small Russian neighbourhood since the two nearby restaurants were both Russian. We all waited around for about 20 minutes for the groom, bride, and the priests to show up, and then we all went inside.

Now a Russian Orthodox wedding ceremony is very different from a Catholic or Anglican one. Firstly, the Cathedral had no pews so everyone stands for the whole ceremony, though there were a few chairs along the side in case people needed to sit down. The couple enters the church together and are met at the door by two priests who after a couple of recitations places the rings on their fingers, so the couple get their rings at the beginning of the ceremony, not near the end like you would in a Catholic/Anglican wedding.

One of the priests was an older man and from the look of things was the head priest of the Cathedral while the other was a younger man in his 30s. Most of the recitations were sung and the younger priest had this amazing baritone voice almost like an opera singer, with accompaniment by a four-person choir near the altar. All of us attending the ceremony later remarked about it and it made me wonder if Orthodox priests are trained in singing.

The couple and the priests then walk further into the church where after a few more speeches (all of which were in a language I did not recognize, it certainly wasn't French, I was told later it was some form of ancient Slavic language) two crowns are presented and the best man and maid-of-honour hold the crowns over the couple's heads and have to do so for the remainder of the ceremony, including when the priest leads the couple around the altar three times.

[Needless to say in an Orthodox wedding brides shouldn't wear long trains since it would be nearly impossible for the maid of honour to hold the crown over the bride's head without stepping on her dress, something Katerina (the bride) clearly knew since her dress was ankle-length.]

There were more speeches and songs by the priests and a couple of times crown-holding duty was passed to other people attending the wedding to give the best man and maid of honour a break. Then the couple were led through a doorway to the nave of the church where the main altar is. I couldn't really see in the room (guests couldn't follow) so I'm not entirely sure what happened but they were back out in a couple of minutes. The crowns were returned and the couple left the church, followed by best man & maid of honour, then the groom's parents. The rest of us stood there waiting for the bride's parents to leave, figuring that was the proper etiquette, so we all stood there for about a minute until the best man came back to tell us that the ceremony is finished and we can go meet the couple now. oops.

Then we boarded the bus to take us back to the Chateau to get changed for the reception, which was in the Chateau de Breuil, about a 10 minute drive away from the Chateau we were staying at.

There were around 50 to 60 guests and for the first couple of hours we were all outside on a patio sipping champagne and eating amuse bouchées, including pan-seared foie gras. The bride threw her bouquet and since the bride did not have a garter a teddy bear was thrown instead for the men. Strange, but then again, that bear has done some crazy things. I did not manage to catch the bear. We then went inside to the dining hall for dinner. It was a lavish hall that one would expect from an 18th-century period drama -- 40 foot ceilings, paintings and frescoes adorning the walls etc. Really spectacular. There was great food served, lots of wine, and a few games. Apparently in French wedding receptions it is common to play games rather than have a lot of speeches (though the groom and the best man did give speeches, no one else did). The game I remember best was when they stood the bride and groom back-to-back and gave them each a placard with one side indicating the bride and another indicating the groom. They were then asked a series of questions (Who drinks more? Who will change the diapers when you have children?) and they had to flip their placards and we got to see if they agreed with one another, not unlike that old North American TV show "The Newlywed Game". To their credit all of their answers to important questions matched, including a diaper changing one (Him!!), which amused everyone greatly. I also recall that the ladies in charge of the games had also set a rope across the doorway from which hung a number of French postcards**. Guests were asked to pick a card, then on the back was a date sometime between now and the next year. Guests were asked to send the postcard back to the bride and groom on the date indicated so that the couple would have constant reminders over the next year of their wonderful wedding and the guests who attended it. I thought it was a great idea and took a postcard. It is with me at home and I will send it when it is time. For dessert there was a cutting of the cake. The cake was not a white tiered wedding cake commonly seen in North American weddings, it was a French one made up of a number of pastries stacked in a pyramid held together with I'm getting some sort of sugar-syrup. There were also a number of other cakes and desserts available, and a French Ska-Jazz band for the evening's dancing. I think I managed to get back to my room at the Chateau sometime after 3am. Not surprisingly, this time I had the room to myself.

I stumbled out of bed shortly after nine so that I would have time for breakfast before checking out of the Chateau. The groom still had a lot of stuff in the room so I made sure that his brother was aware of it so that they could move the stuff to another room just in case the groom was not available to pick it up before checkout time. I then shared a taxi with two other guests to the train station to grab the train to Paris, where I had booked two nights at a hotel near the Opera recommended to me by a French colleague. The room was not very big but I have been in smaller, and it was clean, on a quiet street, and the AC worked. For 95 Euro a night you couldn't ask for much better in central Paris.

I spent the next two days just wandering around. I do not go into any of the main tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower because I had already done that two summers ago. I just liked wandering around, eating in cafes, and going to places like the steps of Sacre Coeur Cathedral to see the views of the city, sit on the bank of the Seine and watch the boats go by, walk down the Champ de Elyeses, or people-watch at the fountain at Jardin de Tuilleres. A lot of the restaurants recommended by my French colleague were closed because it was August the main holiday time for the French, so I had to settle for the tourist cafes. Food was still good though. All in all a relaxing couple of days.

** -- postcards of France, not postcards with "R-rated" themes (well, most of them weren't anyway)