Friday, December 31, 2010

2010

So the year has come and gone. Think I'll reflect a bit on what happened this year by going through the photo albums:



chilling at the beach, Qatar




with a ceremonial sword at a Qatari wedding, Wakra, Qatar




at an Olympic hockey game, Vancouver





taking a break during a London Walk of Kensington





Boh tea plantation, Malaysia





chilling out with a shisha, near the Inland Sea, Qatar






with my nephew Aiden (I couldn't find a picture of me with my niece Karis though ?!?), McKay family Christmas, Calgary





a picture of a picture taking a picture of me taking a picture of the picture, Victoria and Albert Museum, London





a centuries-old hammam (Turkish bath), Istanbul





getting sophisticated with a cocktail, Vancouver





At the Jet d’Eau, Lake Geneva






Me with a durian (smells bad, tastes good), Kuala Lumpur






Hitting a few balls at the driving range with my friend Tyson, Vancouver





My friend Serdar showing his son the Istaklal Cadessi, Istanbul






flying business class with my friend David, East Putney, England





Iftar dinner at the Cigale Hotel, Doha





Banff, Alberta






With my sister Karen during the Winter Olympics, Vancouver





At the wedding of my former housemate Janel, in Bermuda.





At the CERN particle accelerator, Geneva





Iftar dinner at an Iraqi restaurant, Souq Waqif, Doha





At an NHL game, Calgary





At a surprise birthday dinner (for me) hosted by some friends, Doha





the families and the wedding party relax after my sister's wedding, Penticton, British Columbia





at a fish spa, Kuala Lumpur (it really tickles!)





In front of Abbey Road Studios, London





Digging for desert roses with my friend Serdar and his family, Qatar's southern desert






I'm happy. Vancouver.



Happy New Year everyone!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Qatari Wedding (Arab Wedding)

Okay, I've got a lot of blogging to catch up on. My Qatari friend is back from his honeymoon and gave me some photos from the wedding! Looking back through the blog I realized I hadn't told everyone what happened at the wedding (see what I mean about backlog).

I met up with a group of friends and we all went to the Sheraton hotel where the wedding was being held after the evening prayer in one of the large conference rooms.

Having the wedding in the hotel rather than a tent definitely makes it a touch more upscale, and expensive. But I don't think this was a typical wedding -- that day another Qatari colleague came to me to show me a full page ad in a local newspaper about my friend's wedding and congratulating him. A full page! My first question was, does the ad mention where the wedding is going to be held? Thankfully the answer was no, or else half of Qatar might have shown up.

When we got there I estimate there was about 100 men there already, and over the course of the evening I estimate that well over 800 people were there at some point or another. My friend (the groom) was at the far end of the room with two other men all wearing black bishts, his father and the bride's father. We immediately went over to shake hands with all three and congratulate them, then got out of the way as there was a lineup. We had an opportunity later to meet up with the groom again to have pictures.




We then spent most of the time chatting amongst ourselves and eating the appetizers provided by various waiters wandering around the crowd. Other colleagues and friends came in and we would chat with them after they had greeted the groom. We also briefly met a couple of ambassadors who had attended the function. It turns out many ambassadors were there. A few other men had shown up also wearing bishts, which meant they were likely VIPs (I found out later that some Ministers from the government attended). No chance that His Highness would be showing up though -- he was in Europe working on last-day efforts to win the 2022 World Cup bid, which as we now know succeeded.

After a while dinner was served in the banquet room next door. Like the previous wedding the main dish was lamb on rice on a platter, with a variety of mezzah in small bowls around the table. The difference in this case from the previous wedding I attended was that all of the food was served on tables and everyone had cutlery. Some Arabs stuck with tradition and used their hands anyway. There was also a dessert buffet.

It was during dinner that we noticed there was a woman eating at the head table, which I found odd because I didn't think women went to the men's wedding. She was Caucasian and not wearing an abaya so she definitely was not a family member. Someone speculated that she was likely an ambassador and so as a representative of a nation be allowed at the men's wedding (I found out later that she was the German ambassador).

After the dinner many returned to the main room where they continued to chat with the groom and occasionally did sword dancing when a group of singers started performing.

Eventually the groom joined them at which point most of the men were dancing.






I don't know this kid but he's dressed to the nines. :-)


The wedding was over by about 10 and I returned home. In the next coming weeks some of the local Arabic newspapers had full page or in one case two-page spreads with photos from the wedding. Looks like the wedding hit the society pages.

A great time was had by all.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Syria

I'm back from my latest journey – Damascus. Qatar's national day gave me a long weekend so I looked at a map for somewhere I had not been yet and recalled an English friend of mine saying how he had a really good time in Syria, so I took the long weekend in Damascus to see the Old City.

Now to my knowledge Damascus is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world, if not the oldest. I think it's been here for over 3500 years, and for at least the last 2000 was never completely razed or destroyed by some invading army. There's even a few ruins from the Roman days still in the city.

And it was one of the best trips I’ve ever had!

The Old City is a massive place of busy souqs, beautiful mosques, museums, palaces, hammams, and labyrinthine alleyways full of mystery. Exploring the city was really cool, almost an adventure, and in the three days I think I explored almost every inch of it. From the outside most of the buildings looked decayed and decrepit, but peek through a doorway or turn the corner and suddenly you could find yourself in a beautiful Square, by an upscale store, near a millennia old church, a small shrine, an old barber shop, children playing soccer in an alley, or even a mosque. Most importantly, and anyone who's been to Egypt will appreciate this, no one bothers you. No one. In the three days I was there one shopkeeper did the whole "Hi, where are you from? Really, I have a cousin in Canada. Come into my store . . .”. That was it. I explored the Old (and new) City undisturbed. That made it very enjoyable. No, no beggers either. No, no honking taxi drivers trying to get you in their cab. You get hassled a lot more walking around Vancouver.

My presence was relatively ignored. People went about their day shopping, attending mosques or churches, chatting in cafés, and just generally living their lives, not caring about the tourist with the camera. And there weren’t many tourists there, December is the slow season and even on the main tourist streets of the Old City I would maybe see a tourist every three or four minutes.

Here's a few pictures:




In a restaurant in the Old City, which had a band of a guitar player/singer, a percussionist, and a Whirling Dervish.





An Arabic beer! Never thought I'd see one of those.





Another street scene.






At a hammam in the Old City.






At a Shia mosque in the Old City (pretty impressive Iranian architechture) this mosque contained the tomb of one of the daughters of Hussein.






Shopping in the Old City






While wandering around the Old City one evening I happened to come across a rock concert in a park






The Ummayed Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the city, built the eighth century.






Inside the main prayer area of the Ummayed Mosque. The tomb in the center of it is supposed to contain the remains of John the Baptist (of course about a dozen other places also claim to have the remains of John the Baptist but I'm willing to take Damascus's word for it). John the Baptist is also a Prophet under Islam so the tomb has significance for both Christians and Muslims.







Another street scene.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On Vacation

I'm off on a trip for about four days, Qatar's national day is December 18 which created a nice long weekend so I'm taking advantage of it by taking a small vacation. I'll discuss the Qatar PISA results more when I return.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

OECD PISA test -- looking again at the Shanghai controversy

My posts skeptical of Shanghai scores on the PISA test has generated a bit of interest, including some input from Chinese commentators. A couple of hypotheses have been floated: IQ scores, the longer hours Chinese students spend on school work and studying, work ethic, impressive results by China at Mathematics Olympiads etc.. The general assertion is that the Shangahi scores are reasonable and not somehow overinflated as I asserted based on a statistical “Freakonomics” proposal given the large pool of students taking the test.

[update: at least an anonymous someone did post a lengthy comment regarding the Chinese scores, IQ, testing, etc but I can't find the comment now?! For the record I didn't delete it!]

Like any good critical thinker you have to be willing to revisit issues if new information comes up. Unfortunately I'm in Qatar and do not have access to the granular Shanghai PISA data so the best I can do is look around the Internet and see what the media has uncovered. Most of the articles that I looked at just accepted the results at face value without much digging into the underlying reasons for the good scores. There were also some veiled assertions of fixing the scores but without any elaboration, which is also of little value.

So here's some of the items I could find:

Let's start with support for my assertion. A blog post by a writer working for The Atlantic quotes a scientist who pretty much came up with the same rationales that I did, statistical anomalies etc. and suggested that Shanghai officials were “gaming the exam”:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/12/on-those-stunning-shanghai-test-scores/67654/

Downside: this scientist is not named so I cannot figure out the source for the (rather lengthy) analysis. I tried looking on the Internet but could not find anything other than another article that was referencing The Atlantic article. The article seems comprehensive though so I gain some comfort that it is for real. However, the article is actually critical of almost any type of standardized testing to compare groups and points out that there are other significant differences between countries that seem unexplained so questions the overall validity.

Overall opinion I get from the article -- Shanghai scores are probably overinflated, despite that Shanghai students are still probably way better than (almost?) everyone at these things due do their educational system focusing on standardized testing, and everyone is overanalyzing the PISA results and needs to chill out.


Solidly against my assertion: the New York Times. They had a few articles about the PISA test but unlike many other newspapers did some level of work looking at what Shanghai did:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/07/education/07education.html?ref=europe

Much of their work focused on interviews with education professionals who are familiar with Chinese system. Such as . . .

“Mark Schneider, a commissioner of the Department of Education’s research arm in the George W. Bush administration, who returned from an educational research visit to China on Friday, said he had been skeptical about some PISA results in the past. But Mr. Schneider said he considered the accuracy of these results to be unassailable.
“The technical side of this was well regulated, the sampling was O.K., and there was no evidence of cheating,” he said.

How about . . .

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview on Monday.
“I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better,” he added.
(though I'm not clear whether he was referring to the Shanghai scores or the US scores)

Also NYT asserts . . .

“The testing in Shanghai was carried out by an international contractor, working with Chinese authorities, and overseen by the Australian Council for Educational Research, a nonprofit testing group, said Andreas Schleicher, who directs the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s international educational testing program. “


So it appears that there was some independence in administering the test, so controls may have been tighter than I had assumed.


The Christian Science Monitor also took a look at Shanghai and spoke to two American professors with some experience with the Chinese educational system. Both provided rationales for how the results could have happened, and discussed issues regarding the possible strengths with the current Chinese educational system, including attention spans, focus on education, and recent changes to education in Shanghai. Neither of them dismissed the results or alluded that they may have been overinflated:

http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2010/1209/Shanghai-test-scores-have-everyone-asking-How-did-students-do-it

The Telegraph had an article that did not challenge the results but instead looked at some of the factors as to why Shanghai students would do so well. Long hours of class and studying with a focus on specific subjects that are tested appears to be their conclusion. They even quote a Chinese critic of the educational system that states that the singular focus on test preparation is actually a problem as it goes too far:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/8187967/Shanghai-students-ranked-best-in-the-world-at-maths-and-science.html


So far the evidence is definitely stronger for the “Shanghai did not inflate the results” camp. I'll keep monitoring to see if anything else comes up in the media but it would need to be pretty strong to offset what has been reported in some of the articles. I would be interested in finding some articles from other East Asian countries to see what they have to say given that those countries also have very strong focuses on education.

Friday, December 10, 2010

OCED PISA test - back to Qatar

The release of the PISA results tied in well with the 2010 World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), which was being held in Doha at the same time.

I was wondering if the results were going to be discussed at the summit because in the first couple of days the local English-media were silent about Qatar’s test results. One newspaper had mentioned the results of the test were out and that Shanghai had done so well but didn't mention how Qatar had scored, which led me to wonder if there is a bit of reluctance to discuss the issue. My fears were unfounded -- there was a special session at WISE to discuss the results and after the session one of the three English-language papers noted Qatar’s score and had a brief interview with one of the delegates about the results.

I was also encouraged to hear the following...

In Qatar, the Supreme Education Council decided to join PISA 2012 where the major domain will be mathematics. In PISA 2012, the field trial of which will be administered in March 2011, 1300 students enrolled in Private Arabic, Independent, Community and International schools will be assessed

It is good to see that Qatar is clearly not shying away from the PISA tests and are willing to have their students undergo such scrutiny even though the results may reflect poorly on the country's educational system. This in my mind shows that the Supreme Education Council is more concerned with reform than hiding problems.

As I've noted before reforms in education will take a long time to bear fruit and it is important that those reforms include the earliest school years as that will impact the education of students in the later years. But what are the issues in Qatar's educational system? If you search my blog for PISA you'll find a few posts from last year that discuss the issue, one of which noting in detail some of the things I heard from both teachers and Qataris about how schooling works in the public sector, and it is definitely an eye-opener. That can't be the full story though. It was not only Qataris that were tested, students in the various private schools were also tested and Qatar has a large number of private schools: Indian curriculum, British curriculum, Pakistani curriculum American curriculum, French curriculum, even a Canadian school. I also don't think Qataris make up the majority of students in the country anymore given that Qataris only make up about 15% of the population, I speculate they are around 30% of the students due to the high birthrates amongst Qataris as well is the fact that many of the ex-pat workers do not have their families here. PISA likely tested students from all backgrounds.

Yet Qatar scored far lower than all of the OECD countries, and scored lower than other Arab nations such as Jordan and Tunisia. But if many of these kids went to private schools on Western curriculums one would have thought that at least a portion of the students would've scored around the levels of their home countries (unfortunately India, Pakistan, and major Arab countries like Egypt didn't participate in the PISA study so we have no idea how well those curriculums would do). This would imply that the public school students would've on average scored even lower than the Qatar average would suggest. While I have no data to back it up I can't believe that would be true -- Qatar public schools would have to be some of the worst on the planet for that to be right! The schools may have a number of issues based on what I've been told but I have met many Qataris and their education is certainly not that bad.

So what are the possible issues? I don't have the data, hopefully the Supreme Education Council has data on individual schools or additional supplementary statistics they can use to get to the heart of the matter. I will speculate on some possible problems:


1. Learning multiple languages at once

Qataris generally know both Arabic and English. Much of the ex-pat population are from non-Arabic speaking countries so it can be difficult sometimes to get by without English. Most Qataris, including children, know English to some degree. Same would be true with many of the other curriculums. If the educational system is geared to teaching two languages then kids are definitely going to suffer on the PISA reading scores went up to countries who focus on one language.

2. Cultural focus on education

Do parents involve themselves in a child's education to the extent they do in places like East Asia? Are parents monitoring that homework is being done, and studying is taking place? Is getting good grades important to parents? Do parents put pressure on the school to not fail their child even though they're not performing well? I really don't know the answer to these questions, this is a cultural issue that I have not explored.

3. Wealth

Qatar has been blessed with wealth but sometimes wealth is a double-edged sword, in poorer countries students can be very motivated to do well in their studies because education is seen as a ticket out of poverty. But what if your family is already financially well-off? Are students really motivated to do well if they think that Daddy will get them a job when they get out of high school anyway?

4. Cultural focus on reading

The Qataris I have spoken to are not avid readers and the PISA results show that children who enjoy reading and read recreationally for even a half hour a day score way better than their peers on the reading test. Is reading encouraged in Arab society? Is it a common pastime? I'm assuming it is encouraged to some extent if only for religious reasons -- reading the Qur'an and related religious writings, but perhaps for whatever reason recreational reading is not a big thing in local culture. Again, I don't know if this is true or not.

5. School curriculums not testing on a comprehensive basis

If what I've heard about public schools is true it appears that in many courses tests only cover the most recent chapter of the textbook and then you are never tested on that material again -- there is no comprehensive final at the end of the course. This means that long-term retention of concepts is of less importance than it would be in a comprehensive test curriculum. It also encourages cramming for the test which is also never a good thing for long-term retention of the material.

Qatar might want to consider some form of nation-wide standardized testing to at least ensure that minimum standards are being met.

6. Too much emphasis on "participation"

Again if what one of the Qataris has told me about the public school system is true then in some classes up to 50% of your mark is based on attendance. So technically you can pass the class by simply showing up. Even if the 50% is not true I don't care if it's 25% that is still way too much just for attendance or participation, especially if it is something like math or science. The Supreme Council deathly needs to take a look at this to make sure that schools are putting too much weight on participation.


Hopefully there will be some announcements over the next few months from the Council of Education about the reforms that have been undertaken and what further steps will be initiated to help solve some of the issues in schools.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

OECD PISA test – Skeptical about Shanghai

A newcomer to the PISA tests went on to take top spot in all three categories – Shanghai. Not only did they take top spot but they did it by a huge margin. Let's take a look at the top 8 scores in each category, and the 32nd place country (i.e. in the middle of the 65 countries/regions whose scores were released):

Reading
556 Shanghai
539 Korea
536 Finland
533 Hong Kong
526 Singapore
524 Canada (yay!!)
521 New Zealand
520 Japan
. . . .
483 Greece (32nd)


Mathematics
600 Shanghai
562 Singapore
555 Hong Kong
546 Korea
543 Taiwan
541 Finland
536 Liechtenstein
534 Switzerland
. . . .
487 United States/Ireland/Portugal (tied for 32nd)

Science
575 Shanghai
554 Finland
549 Hong Kong
542 Singapore
539 Japan
538 Korea
532 New Zealand
. . . .
489 Italy (32nd)

Shanghai beat the second-place entrant by 17-38 points, yet the difference between 2nd to 3rd, 3rd to 4th etc, was a mere 1-9 points, with an average of 4.1, and a change of 56-73 points is enough to take you from 2nd all the way down to 32nd. No country was consistently 2nd or 3rd etc in all three categories. That is just to give you an idea of how wide a margin Shanghai did on the PISA test. It's a fantastic result, an incredible result.



It's too good of a result. Waaaaaaaay too good. Something doesn't quite add up here.



The sample size for these tests is huge. According to the PISA website, countries are required to test at least 5,000 students, or an entire cohort if the country is small and does not have that many students in the age category. What are the odds that a group of 5,000 students (or more) would be so dramatically better on average than other groups of a similar size? I'd say near-impossible odds. (quick, someone call the author of Freakonomics!). One cannot have such a large data pool of random students and yet have such a dramatic variance at the top end.

Now before I continue I just want to make one thing clear -- it is not unreasonable for Shanghai to have taken the top spot. East Asian countries have performed incredibly well on the PISA test every time it has been given, and countries like Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore are regularly in the top five in all categories. Education is highly valued in these countries, expectations are high, and there is a lot of parental involvement and monitoring. Children in these countries are expected to study hard and do well in school and PISA results have consistently reflected that. And Shanghai is China's biggest and wealthiest city so I have no doubt that they have some of the best schools in China. There is no reason why Shanghai couldn't be leading the pack.

But no way by that much.

So what happened? Well, I'm not entirely sure. I'm not involved with PISA and I do not know what all of their processes are in administering the test. But let me speculate . . .

Perhaps the educational ministers or officials in Shanghai were under a lot of pressure to see good results.

Countries tend to see the PISA test as a way to see how their students are performing and try to see if there are weaknesses in the educational system for which a government can introduce initiatives to try to fix, or to identify good performing countries so that other countries can look to see what exactly those countries do and perhaps emulate it. It is a great learning tool for governments. If you take that approach to the PISA test then it is highly unlikely you are going to try to manipulate the results in order to look better than other countries. You need real, honest data about how your country is doing. Because of this I'm not sure if PISA’s controls are particularly strict to ensure countries don't manipulate the results. What would be the point of taking the test if you are not interested in honest results, right? Well, if you were worried that your career was at stake maybe you'd be more inclined to provide the results you think your boss wants.

So it is possible that officials in Shanghai were very worried about repercussions from the Central Government if results were less than stellar, which would give them an incentive to improve the results. This is not uncommon with one-party centralized governments, officials who fear repercussions give the story that their superiors want to hear. Since this is an outside test perhaps some officials, worried that the students would show poor results compared to countries in their region, tweaked things a little somehow, and tweaked things a bit too much.

How? Here are some possible ways:

1) Have students older than the required age take the test.

2) Select only specialized schools or top-end schools

3) Review the test before handing them in and correct a few mistakes (I believe Freakonomics had a tale on this regarding standardized testing in the US)

4) Review the test beforehand and inform students of some of the answers, or make sure that material is covered in classes before the exam is given.

5) Pretest the students on a similar exam (perhaps PISA 2003 or PISA 2006) and only have the higher-performing students take the 2009 exam.

6) Some or all of the above

Now maybe PISA has some strong controls or prevent many of these, but they would not be able to prevent all of them (number 1 or 5 for example). Anyway, if a country or an education Ministry really wanted to manipulate the results they could.

I would love if someone could get a good statistician and run the odds that Shanghai would pull so far ahead in all three categories given the size of the student pool. If anyone does this let me know. Until such time I will always be skeptical about the results posted for Shanghai.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Qatar education results -- OECD's PISA test

I've mentioned other times in this blog about the PISA test, a test conducted by the OECD every three years which tests 15-year-old students in various countries on reading, science, and math, with a special focus on one of the three categories each time the test is run. It has done this since 2000 and the results always create a lot of media frenzy in the West when countries figure out that their students scored worse than other countries. I expect a lot of education ministers to be fielding tough questions this week.

A lot of non-OECD countries also signed up for the test and Qatar signed up for the 2006 test, where they placed second last out of 57 countries in all three categories (beating out Kyrgyzstan in all three categories). The test continues to grow membership and for the 2009 test there were 65 countries or regions who signed up, including Qatar.

Well the results for the 2009 test were released today, this time focusing on reading but of course testing all three categories. How did Qatar do?

Reading: 61st (higher then Peru, Panama, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan)
Science: 61st (beating the same countries listed above)
Mathematics: 62nd (Azerbaijan pulled ahead in this category)


Now I was not expecting significant improvement from the 2006 test because educational reform takes a long time to see results. The kids who wrote this test would've been 12 years old back in 2006 so would already have been well through the educational system. But is Qatar making significant changes to its educational system? This is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and yet its students are clearly underperforming. Poorer Arab-speaking nations such as Jordan or Tunisia outperformed Qatar, and four South American countries also did better.

It does go to show that money does not necessarily buy a good educational system, many high-performing countries spent less per capita on education than high-spending countries such as Qatar or the United States. Thankfully the OECD also does a lot more analysis than just a simple score. Here are some highlights from the executive summary:

• students in urban schools perform better than students in rural schools, even if you factor in their social economic background
• children from single-parent households will score slightly lower on average than children from two-parent households (we are talking about 1% less)
• looks like your Mom was right, children who primarily read comic books do little better than children who don't do a lot of recreational reading at all. However, kids who do a lot of online research and reading do score better. Recreational reading from a wide variety of materials seems to be the best way to have a high reading score.
• Girls like to read more than boys and not surprisingly girls scored better than boys in all OECD countries -- and the gender gap is widening.
• Students tended to perform better on the test in schools that had greater autonomy over their curriculum and how students are tested
• higher teacher salaries, but not smaller class sizes, correlates with better performance on the test
• students tend to perform better in schools with a better disciplinary climate

Cool stuff. Keep an eye out for discussions on this test, and how well or poorly your country did, in your local papers.

(By the way, for some reason South Asian countries like India and Pakistan have not signed up for the test. I wish they would, if you're living in one of those countries, see if you can ask your education Minister why they are not signing up for the OECD test)

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup!

Qatar has won the 2022 World Cup!!

Unbelievable achievement, congratulations Qatar!

Now before I continue describing the mayhem of happiness and joy that erupted throughout the country in the wake of the announcement I would just like to come clean and say for the record: when Qatar first announced its intention to bid for the 2022 World Cup a couple of years ago I said “not a chance”. You need at least nine stadiums that hold 40,000+ people, it has never been held in such a small country before, there aren't enough hotel rooms or infrastructure for 400,000 fans, and the tournament has to be held in June and July in open air stadiums (that's a FIFA requirement). In June it's already hitting 40° with humidity and if the stadiums are open air than how could you cool them? With all that in mind I thought this bid was a no-go right from the beginning.

I changed my mind after seeing the initial bid that they made, which dealt with all of the above issues in detail. Looks like everyone else changed their mind too. They even built a smaller version of a stadium (500-seater) with a revolutionary air-conditioning system to demonstrate how they could keep it cool (apparently the pitch was 27° while outside it was 44°).

I just wanted to get that out of the way -- I'm not going to jump on the bandwagon and pretend that I was a staunch supporter right from day one.

Now when the announcement was made I was in Arabic class and left shortly thereafter to pick up a friend and his colleague who were in Qatar for just one evening on business to take them to the souq. I then realized that since Qatar won the bid the streets near the Corniche would be absolute chaos with celebrations and it would probably take us forever to get to the souq. Our friend wondered if that meant we should have dinner at the hotel and I said “Are you kidding? Now we definitely have to go! This will be the biggest celebration since the country gained independence!”

Sure enough the streets were a madhouse of cars, almost all of them with Qatari flags, and horns honking. Qatari men in dishdasha were everywhere, in the streets, waving from car windows, on top of vehicles, yelling, waving flags and jumping up and down. But it wasn't just Qataris, Arabs of all nationalities were out in the streets as well. Lebanese, Egyptians, Moroccan, Omanis, all were absolutely jubilant. Traffic was going almost nowhere but no one cared because they weren’t down there to go anywhere -- just to move around slowly, honk their horns and celebrate. I even saw some policeman in their car waving flags. Some people had painted “2022”and similar slogans on their vehicles. I even received a celebratory text from my Qatari friend who got married the night before!

The world needs to understand that Qataris took this bid seriously and were truly hoping they would get it. There is no chance that celebrations in the USA would've been like this. The two Americans I was with didn't even know that the USA was bidding for it.

After about an hour we got to the souq and had dinner, wandered around a while, then took an hour to get as even at 1130 the traffic and celebrations were as big as when we first left. I eventually got home around 1am, and in the main road in front of my apartment building traffic was still clogged in both directions with celebrating Qataris and other Arabs. So I stood on the sidewalk in front my apartment building and watched it all go by. The party went on into the wee hours.

The next night there was a parade starting from the Corniche and going to Khalifa Stadium. I missed the parade because I was at a friends place but sure enough that evening the streets were again packed with cars full of jubilant Arabs.

Even now I still can't quite come to terms with what has happened. Qatar, which 15 years ago was a country of maybe 200,000 people and didn't even have a mall, had accomplished so much in so little time that they won the right to hold the biggest tournament in the world.

The impact this will have on the nation will be unreal. Prior to this the construction was for various purposes: developing infrastructure, try to diversify the economy, develop ways to invest its oil wealth, but there was no real end point or overarching rationale that put all the various projects together. For the next 12 years the country will have a real sense of purpose, a goal for which all of the construction and changes will be geared to. The World Cup will now be foremost on the minds of Qataris and much of the country’s development will be in support of that goal.

It will be an exciting time, a wild time, and the country will change faster than the momentous amount of change that had gone before. Hopefully it citizens will be able to cope with that change as the tiny country of Qatar becomes the focus of the world.

But they have a while to sort all that out, for now there is celebration, I expect the jubilant mood to continue for at least the next two weeks. Qatar's National Day is December 18 and I expect it will be quite the party.

Congratulations Qatar!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Another Qatari wedding (Arab wedding)

So I've done the occasional post about a Qatari friend of mine who was getting married -- well the time has come! He is getting married this week. Naturally, I'm invited, as is almost every other man he knows.

Much like the previous wedding I went to you do not have a lot of build-up, I got the invitation two days ago. That's okay though because unlike the West there are no gifts, no place settings at the table, nor many of the other planning details that go into a Western wedding. In Qatari society it's perfectly acceptable to even just show up, congratulate him, and walk back out the door. No pressure on guests.

Unlike the previous Qatari wedding I went to that took place in a large tent this one is taking place at a prominent hotel. He is the oldest child and his father is a VIP in the government so apparently the celebration has to be a bit more upscale. Qatar society does place some level of expectation on people for how grand the wedding must be, it is something that the government is trying to dissuade people from doing because of the cost, but so far to no avail.

My friend has been very gracious in answering my numerous questions about wedding customs, and knows that I will be posting about it on my blog, but the actual cost of the wedding is something I haven't asked because I feel that's getting a little too nosy. I do know that for a typical wedding (remember there are separate men's and women's functions) you should expect to splash out at least $100,000, not including the gifts and jewelry that go to the bride. My friend's family is probably spending more than that.

Now if you recall technically he's already married; months ago a judge visited the couple and their families and accepted the contract of marriage, but under Qatari culture they are not considered married until they have had this celebration. There is both the men and ladies party where congratulations are excepted, food is eaten, and likely some dancing occurs -- moreso at the women's party I've heard. There is no exchanging vows, an imam overseeing a ceremony, or any other kind of formal ceremony as we know it from a Western wedding. I have asked my friend if there is any specific preparations or ceremonies that he does earlier in the day (the wedding party I'm attending starts after the evening prayer). He said no, there is no other private ceremony he does. After the men's party, which will end 10-ish, he will go to the women's party and leave with the bride. At that point they are considered married by all and sundry.

After that there will be a honeymoon. As of a few days ago my friend still wasn't sure where they were going to go!? Apparently his wife-to-be didn't have any particular preference. I'm guessing the concept of honeymoons is a pretty recent thing, possibly a Western influence. I base this on the fact that he seems somewhat laissez-faire about where their honeymoon will be.

You bet I'll post an update once the party has finished.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

malaysia and switzerland

Okay, I'm back from my tour of Switzerland and Malaysia. Switzerland was for work and had its ups and downs (as it is I got there I cracked a tooth so I had to find emergency dental treatment) but after the seminar I went down to Geneva for the weekend. I've never been to Geneva and I found it to be, I don't know, not as nice as I expected. I think when you spend time in Switzerland most of the cities look so good that cities like Geneva just seems so-so by comparison. I got to see the CERN particle accelerator facility though which was really cool, and they do have free boats that go across the lake near the Jet d’lau and the Lakeside of Geneva is scenic. Just that if you have been to some other places like Interlaken or Zürich then it doesn't hit you with as much "wow" factor as it normally might. Two days was about enough to see everything that I wanted to.

Switzerland is also really expensive so if you're planning to go you better be prepared shell out a lot of money for meals. Expect to pay at least $60 plus for even a straightforward meal at a restaurant. Fast food meal will be $12 plus per person.

I did enjoy taking the train from Basel to Geneva though, it was nice to see the countryside and there was a fantastic view from the train once it got to the mountains near the lake.


So I was back in Doha for about 24 hours before flying off to Malaysia to visit a Qatari friend of mine for the Eid holidays. I was pleasantly surprised by Kuala Lumpur, it was clean, safe, very modern, had a pretty good metro system. I could wander around the various neighborhoods and no one would bother me. The city had a few interesting sites such as the KL Tower, Petronas Tower and nearby park, and the Batu Caves (Hindu shrines and temples set in a cave in a mountainside, definitely worth seeing, but you're climbing at least 200 steps). My friend had one day off so we spent that going up to the Cameron Highlands to see the jungle and tour a tea plantation. I also spent time in Kuala Lumpur seeing a bird park, the national Mosque, a butterfly park, doing a bit of shopping, and going to a fish spa, where you put your feet in the tank and fish start eating all the dead skin on your feet. Tickles like all get out and I spent the first five minutes laughing my head off.

I also got to try durian, the infamously smelly fruit. At first I had a dessert with a durian sauce on it and it was pretty tasty, though it did smell a bit, but then my friend remembered that there was a durian stand somewhere near the fish spa so we went to seek it out. I knew we were getting close due to the smell -- either that or someone threw up in an alleyway -- and sure enough about 50m later there was a big stand of durians. The owner was willing to open the fruit right there and you could sit on some plastic chairs and eat it. The fruit is so smelly that many hotels, and the Metro, will not allow you to take the fruit in. The fruit actually tastes nothing like it smells, more like a sweet banana. Another group of four tourists also bought a durian and were sitting at a table near us trying it, at least one of them gagged and had to spit it out, they couldn't get past the smell.

It was also quite muggy and hot in Kuala Lumpur, typically sunny and hitting the mid-30s with high humidity. Going outside and walking around became a bit tiring and you were quickly just soaked with sweat. But every day around 2:30 to 3:30 there would be a massive downpour that would last about a half hour to 45 minutes, and then everything would be cooler and fresher. I only got caught in the downpour once but I had a very large umbrella with me so only my feet got wet (I was also using the umbrella as a sun umbrella for walking around, great investment and I recommend anyone visiting Kuala Lumpur to keep a big umbrella with them at all times).

Eating in Kuala Lumpur was great. There were tons of street stalls and restaurants selling Malay, Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, and related cuisines. You could typically get decent meals for five bucks provided you didn't want to go to fancy restaurants in malls and stuff. As I was with my Qatari friend we had to make sure we were eating in a halal restaurant, which were plentiful but not every restaurant was halal. Malaysia has strict laws about labeling so almost anything that is halal has to be labeled as such. I even bought some tea when we were at the Boh tea plantation and the boxes of tea had the symbol that it was halal (how in the world tea couldn't be halal is beyond me but there you go).

Back in Doha now, where I continue my Arabic classes and get out and about more because the weather has cooled, but more on that later.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

travel

Sorry I haven't posted for a while everyone, I had to go away on a business trip and, as usual, had to work late and on the weekend to make sure I got everything caught up before I left. Weirdly enough I'm only back for today because it is now the Eid Holiday so I will be off this evening to Kuala Lumpur to meet up with a Qatari friend of mine who is studying Islamic finance there. Never been to KL so I can't wait.

I'm also taking Arabic lessons again at Qatar University. It's tough, Arabic is not an easy language to learn if you're used to Latin languages. I'll post more about that when I return.

I've also been considering taking lessons in Islamic theology. Seems like a natural progression to my work studying the local culture and religion and since I believe FANAR provides free courses in it, why not? I guess the only concern is of course they are interested in you converting to Islam but from my experience Muslims are nowhere near as pushy as Christian groups like Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons. Once I've had a look at what is available maybe I will be able to do this without getting too much of a hard sell. I remember visiting FANAR once and having a discussion with one of their staff members and I think they were a little surprised by how much I actually knew about Islam.

Anyway, off to KL, I'll be back in about a week.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Doha Tribeca Film Festival -- part two

Okay, back to the movies I saw last week at the film festival...


Africa United

Attendance: about 90%

A movie about some kids in Rwanda chasing a dream. One of the kids is apparently an excellent football player and gets spotted by a scout who is holding tryouts in the capital for kids to be part of a team that will perform at the opening ceremony for the World Cup in South Africa. The kid, his "manager" (a street savvy kid who makes soccer balls out of condoms and plastic bags), and the manager's sister take a bus to the tryouts, get on the wrong bus, and wind up in the Congo. Realizing he missed the tryout they all decide to journey to South Africa to catch up with the team. Various hijinks along the way and they also pick up a couple of other people while they travel through various countries in southern Africa.

Overall I liked it and thought it was a pretty entertaining film. The film touched on some pretty deep subjects (HIV, child soldiers, war atrocities, prostitution, poverty) but on many of the subjects it was only touched on in a roundabout way so adults watching the film would understand what they were referring to but a child watching the film probably would not (the film is rated G). Despite the touchy subjects the film is a lot more upbeat than you think.

Rating: 4/5. Worth taking the family to but be warned that there is a bit of PG language


Itto Titrit

Attendance: maybe 20%, but the show did start at 22:30. I felt bad because the director and the producer were there as well.

A film from Morocco and one of the first films to be made in a native Moroccan language – Tamazight. According to the director in the past, for whatever reason, you were not allowed to make films and TV shows in that language. He was very pleased to be able to make this film where the characters all speak Tamazight.

The film takes place in 1950s Morocco in a village up in the mountains. The villagers still live traditionally and deal with a number of dramas: forced marriage, protests against French occupation, education for girls, and dealing with the modern world as it encroaches on their village.

Unfortunately when you shoot a film in a language that is not widely spoken you do not have a wide berth of acting talent to choose from. The acting in this film was generally pretty bad. Also strange was that this film dealt with so many issues, all of which could have made a movie on their own, yet were usually resolved quickly and in many cases offscreen. For example one young woman falls in love with a French soldier, the family plans to make her marry some old guy so she runs off with the soldier. But we never see her leave, run away with the soldier, say goodbye to her family, nothing. We find out she fled when 2 people gossip in the village "can you believe she ran off with that French soldier?” We never see her again. This entire romance and drama took all of about 90 seconds of film split over three scenes. You see the soldier once. One could have made an entire movie on this.

Rating: 2/5. It got a bonus point because at least it showed life in rural Morocco in the 1950s, which I thought was kind of interesting. The acting, lack of on-screen drama, weak script, and what I consider a nonsensical ending kind of killed this movie for me.


My Perestroika

attendance: around 70%, the director and one of the editors was also there

A documentary that follows five people who were all in their teens when the USSR shifted away from communism to capitalism in the early 90s. All five were classmates in the same school and the film shows how they have led such different lives and coped with the changes. One is a successful businessman, a married couple are history teachers, one is a single mother (her fiancé got killed by the Mafia) who repairs billiard tables, and one is a musician who became a punk rock star in the early 90s. They discuss how things have changed, they discuss where they were and what they did during big events in Soviet history, and how by about grade 8 or 9 they could see that the propaganda did not reflect reality.

Rating: 4/5. It was insightful, all of the people followed were pretty intelligent and open in their discussions about their views during those times. The documentary also included a lot of home movie film footage of the people and the events.



Meek's Cutoff

Attendance: I think around 50%, not bad for a late night screening

A Hollywood film set in 1840 following three covered wagons with settlers in it crossing Utah heading towards Oregon, led by a hired guide named Steven Meeks. They get lost, start running low on water, and capture an Indian in the hopes that he can lead them to water. That is pretty much the entire two-hour film summarized right there. This film is slow and contemplative and has a lot of scenes of people crossing prairie and salt plains.

Rating: 1/5. I was waiting for something to happen -- and very little did. I found the ending annoying at first but then realized that at least the film ended. This is definitely a movie for people who like slow, contemplative films but be warned -- this film makes 2001: A Space Odyssey look like a Jet Li flick.



And so ends another Tribeca. I love film festivals, yeah a lot of the films I saw weren't that great but that's the chance you take, some will always be good and some will be bad, but given that many of the films are independent of foreign films there's little chance you'll get another opportunity to see them.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Qatari Wedding (Arab wedding)

Remember how I was mentioning that a wedding was coming up, and that Qataris don't advertise a wedding too far in advance? Well I received an invitation to a wedding -- and not the friend’s wedding that I had mentioned before, another Qatari was getting married.

I got the invitation two days before the wedding. Yes, two days before. It's okay though, you don't bring gifts to a Qatari men's wedding, all that is expected of you is to show up and congratulate the groom. [As I mentioned before men and women celebrate a wedding completely separate from one another, usually in completely separate venues sometimes kilometers away].

Here's a sample of what the wedding invite looked like. I didn't want to show the whole thing to keep the groom’s identity confidential (I haven't asked him if it's okay to blog about his wedding) but this will give you an idea:




So the evening of the wedding I dressed in a suit and tie and a bunch of us piled into a Land Cruiser and headed out to the wedding tent. Qataris invite almost everyone to a wedding, and for a men's wedding you don't even need to be invited -- one of the guys with us didn't know the groom at all, having recently moved to Qatar only six weeks ago. I'll get into why such a broad invitation is given a little bit later in the blog post. Apparently for the women's wedding it's different and it's usually invite only.

The family had set out a large tent in an empty field to host the men's wedding. Now this tent was easily the size of a large ballroom, necessary to be able to hold potentially hundreds of people, and you need a large space to set it up in for both the tent and the parking for all of the cars. As Qataris are now used to holding such large weddings there is a thriving business in setting up these large tents and the generators for providing electricity for the lights.

So we all entered the tent and the carpeting led us straight across the tent to the other side where the groom and his father were supposed to be receiving the guests. When we arrived it was prayer time so everyone was in the tent praying. We just waited around until they were finished. The groom and his father were easy to spot as they were the only ones wearing a bisht (a thin overrobe that they wear loosely over their white thobe, bishts are typically worn by aristocracy during official meetings and ceremonies but they are also worn by the groom and his father during a wedding). I was with a Qatari friend and I was already primed on what to do -- shake the father's hand and give your congratulations, shake the groom's hand and congratulate him, don't spend too much time chatting as that will hold up the line of other guests waiting to greet the groom and his father, and move on. If you want to chat with the groom there will likely be time later in the evening when things are a bit quieter. Surprisingly the groom paused proceedings for a bit and asked us to all line up next to him and his father for pictures. If I can get a copy of the pictures and get permission to post it I will.

About that time I noticed that there were also a couple of video cameras in the tent. Not handheld ones, real video cameras on tripods, recording the event. There was also a couple of TVs so that if you wanted people could see what was being recorded by the cameras.

Another Qatari that I knew came by for a chat and was holding something belonging to his cousin that he let me hold:



A ceremonial sword, used for the dancing that was to come later. This picture is also good to give you an idea of the size of the tent (you're seeing about a third of the main space). Note that the only chairs are along the walls, I mentioned previously in my blog that in Arab society it is considered impolite at events to sit with your back to someone so chairs/seating are only laid out along the walls. Given that a lot of people will be showing up you need a big tent so that you have space to put all the chairs along the walls.

If you look behind me you'll also see a space that doesn't have chairs, that leads to an entirely separate area where the food will be served. Yes, there is even more space in this tent, an entire dining area.

Then the drums and singers started while some of the guests took their swords and started dancing to the rhythm. I caught a reasonable picture of the festivities:




Now don't get me wrong, most of the guests did not have swords with them, in fact I'm guessing about 20 had swords. Most of the Qataris just hung out in the tent and chatted away or ate some of the snacks that were available. Some gathered around to watch the dancing.

Now the Qatari that loaned me the sword for the picture mentioned to me that in the old days the men's wedding was typically held outside. The banging of drums and singing would carry far across the desert and any man hearing it would realize that there was a wedding so would go towards the drums to find out who was getting married and give their congratulations, and possibly eat whatever food was being provided. This is why even today the men's wedding is very open in terms of who is invited, traditionally you didn't send out invitations as any man nearby could show up.

By this point I stopped taking photos. Looking around I noticed that no one seemed to be taking any photographs aside from the official photographer(s) so I wasn't sure if guests taking photos was a cool thing to do.

Dinner was announced so we all moved into the dining area where numerous trays of whole roast lamb on rice had been prepared (and I mean whole -- head and everything). Most of the platters were on the floor and guests immediately sat around the trays and started eating. There was no assigned seating. The family had set up three tables as well so that guests such as us Westerners would not have to eat sitting on the floor.

Now for this dinner, in a traditional Arabic style, there were no plates or cutlery. Guests reach into the food with their right hand, tearing apart bits of meat and grabbing small handfuls of rice, and eat it directly. Always with your right hand, never with your left. Yes it is messy, yes your hand gets all covered with rice and small bits of meat, and yes there are bits of rice all over the place when you're done but that's the way it is. I'd also been told in advance that's what would happen so simply rolled up my sleeve and dug in. There was also bowls with a Qatari dish called haris, meat blended into a type of wheat paste, which tasted somewhat like plain porridge. Since there was no cutlery you just put two fingers in and scooped some to put it in your mouth.

Off to the side was a large area with numerous sinks and soap for guests to clean their hands once they were done. I also noticed that once men had finished eating and left to clean their hands other men would sit down in their place and start eating. At our table this happened at least four times. Near to the end of the dinner I noticed that many of the men were South Asian and not dressed in suits or thobes, so may have been catering employees or just people who happened to be nearby who came by for a meal. By the time I finished cleaning my hands and wandered back into the main tent there were still a lot of people eating and it looked to me like there wasn't going to be any leftovers.

We whiled away the time chatting, watching some more of the singing and dancing, and had an Arabic desert called halwa that was available on the tables near the seats. After a while we went back over to the groom, congratulated him again, had another picture taken with him, and left. All told we were there maybe 2 1/2 hours. By about 10 o'clock or 11 o'clock the groom would be leaving anyway to go pick up his bride at the women's wedding, though I have been told that many will stick around and follow his car to the women's ceremony like a wedding procession.

All told it was a great experience. I should be going to another wedding soon, I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Doha Tribeca Film Festival

The second annual Doha Tribeca Film Festival has started so I have once again got tickets to a wide variety of films.

I've always liked film festivals because it allows you to see independent films that you might not ever see otherwise. Not that all of the films are independent, I usually see one or two Hollywood films as well, but it looks like this year more of the films are foreign-language, especially from the Middle East and North Africa. I just pick films based on what I think looks interesting, from there it's a real spin of the roulette wheel. Many of the films are not great but occasionally you find real "diamonds in the rough". I remember watching Born into Brothels at the film festival in Bermuda and briefly meeting the directors. Less than a year later they were collecting the Academy Award for best documentary -- beating out the more well-known Super Size Me.

So here's an overview of the first films I saw. At each film you're given a ballot so that you can vote on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being bad and 5 being awesome), I have also provided the ratings I gave the film:


Waiting for Superman

Attendance: 100% - full house.

A documentary about the state of the US public school system and how in many cities there are charter schools or magnet schools that are also public but do a much better job educating children. Unfortunately these schools only have so much space and always receive more applications than available seats, in some cases 20 times as many,
so each state’s regulations require that the children who are accepted are determined by lottery. The film follows five children and their families, each in different cities, as they try to get their children into the schools so that they will not be stuck in underperforming public schools (some of which are so bad one expert referred to them as "dropout factories"). The film also points out reasons why many public schools don't perform, and talks to various experts or individuals trying to reform the system. The film especially singles out the fact that in almost no state can you fire a teacher thanks to union contracts, allowing really bad teachers to continue educating (charter/magnet schools are allowed to have non-union teachers).

I've always had an interest in education but at times I felt that the film was a bit long on preaching narrative so it dragged in some places. It also didn't seem to give a fair shake to unions and supporters of the public school system to answer the criticisms in the film. That said you do get to know the children and their families, and at the end when the film follows the families to their various lotteries you find yourself wishing that the child's name gets called. The film made it clear, will this child go on to a public school where they will likely not learn much and eventually dropout, or go to a school where the chances of them graduating and going on to college are more than 80%? And it all comes down to their name being drawn out of a box, or that bingo ball matching their number tumbling out. Why does it have to be like this in America?

Rating: 4/5. Definitely worth seeing, though a bit long at times


Legend of the Fist: the Return of Chen Zen

Attendance: 25%, but it was in a huge venue and started at 1030 at night on a weekday.

A Hong Kong (or possibly Chinese) martial arts film that takes place in Shanghai in the 1920s.

First a bit about the venue. This movie was shown at the Four Seasons Hotel on their beach, so patrons sat on beach chairs, toes in the sand, and watched the film on a big screen. Because it was a hotel they served beer. I think it's the first time I'd ever seen a film in a theater that provided beer -- and it was in the Middle East! The weather was pleasant and there were no issues with the sound. Had it been a bit windy here I think the waves lapping up against the shore might have caused a bit of background noise but this night the waters were calm.

As for the film it was a bit all over the place and tried to incorporate too many elements. At times it was a war film, film noir, an action film, a romance, a spy film, a political film, it just didn't seem to know what it wanted to do. A lot of cliché elements to it and the fight scenes weren't that great.

Rating: 2/5. You'd be much better off watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a Bruce Lee film, or Hero.



A Throw of Dice

Attendance: 60%, and it was in the biggest venue at the festival

A free showing of a 1929 silent film about two kings and the lovely Princess they both desire, set in India during the time of the Raj. What made this showing special was that a musical score had been composed for it which was played live by the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra while the film was being screened.

The venue was the Katara Open-Air Theater at the newly-opened Cultural City. I estimate it could probably seat about 800 people.

The movie was pretty good at it looked to me like it was really set in India and had Indian actors. Because it was the time of the Raj everyone was dressed in elaborate costumes, had huge palaces, tons of servants and so forth. The plot was pretty conventional, an Evil King, a Good King, a love story, and the evil King using rigged dice to get the good King's Kingdom (hence the title). The evil King is defeated, the good King gets his kingdom back and wins the hand of the beautiful princess, and vows never to gamble again. The orchestra did a great job and I don't think the movie would've been quite as good to watch without it.

Rating: 4/5. A unique experience watching a film with a live 75-piece orchestra.


Stone

Attendance: 100%

The newest film with Robert De Niro. Mr. DeNiro and the director were at the screening and said a few words before the movie started.

I won't go into too much detail since this is a new Hollywood film and surely will be available in theaters all over the world. DeNiro plays a prison psychologist who makes recommendations for parole, Ed Norton plays a savvy prisoner, and Mila Jojovich plays Norton's wife who's willing to do anything to get her husband out of jail. DeNiro is clearly unhappy with his life and the film has a lot of characters staring around in existential angst. Too long.

Rating: 3/5. Both a prisoner and an old man unhappy with their lives try to find meaning in it all. While I was watching it I appreciated that A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers did a way better job in covering this kind of theme.

For more movie reviews later but next blog post is about something else altogether...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Happy birthday Aiden!

It is my nephew Aiden's birthday today and I've been told that he and his sister had a party earlier this week. I'm going to guess he looked a lot like this afterward:






Hehehehe, that's one of my favorite pictures. It looks like he came back from a college fraternity chocolate-cake party.

Because that was a mean picture here is a much nicer one of him helping me pick apples at Grandma's house:






Happy birthday kiddo! Give Mom & Dad a kiss for me.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Museum lectures, part two

The second lecture at the Museum of Islamic Art, on great Arab thinkers, was on a Sufi aesthetic from the eighth century -- Rabia al-Adawiyya

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabia_al-Adawiyya

She was born in Basra (Iraq), so unlike the subject of the previous lecture she could definitely be considered an Arab and probably spoke Arabic.

Now Sufism is a type of Islam that tends to be along the more mystic/ascetic lines of spirituality (Whirling Dervishes, who spin around as a form of meditation, are Sufis). A Qatari friend of mine who had experiences with Sufis during his time abroad considered them odd and certainly different from the Wahhabist-Sunni Islam that he followed. I'm not entirely sure of the differences between the different groups, I'll consider researching that further sometime.

What was unusual about this lecture was that it seemed to be more of a hagiography, focusing on details of the lady’s miracles and manifestations of devoutness rather than solid historical facts about her (given that she was born in the eighth century perhaps maybe there wasn't much). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hagiography

What I found interesting is that all of these tales and stories about Rabia struck me as being very similar to the tales of Christian saints propagated by Catholicism. Miracles, stories of her floating in the air, making lanterns blaze with light, seem to be most of the information about her, not unlike many Catholic saints. It makes me wonder whether the Christian tradition of hagiography had somehow permeated the early Islamic followers who looked for and emulated saints. In fact, until I attended this lecture I didn't realize there was any such thing as an Islamic saint, though it is apparently common in Sufiism.

The lecturer did touch on many of the stories that are indeed linked with Wikipedia article but there were a few differences. Her father did not relate that the Prophet had asked the Amir to give him 400 dinars, that was simply a reward that the Amir gave him for the vision. Apparently no one knew that the Amir observed Darooud so her father telling the Amir that he had missed it last Thursday (the lecturer said it was a Friday, which makes a little more sense since that is a holy day) was all the proof that he needed to know that her father was telling the truth about the vision.

Even more unusual was that she remained celibate throughout her life and rejected many marriage proposals. Unlike Christianity, Islam does not generally consider chastity as being more "pure" or innocent -- the Prophet Mohammed had many wives and since he is considered an exemplary human being in Islam (he is a Prophet of Allah, duh), marriage is considered acceptable for anyone. As far as I know no sect in Islam promotes celibacy for its imams/religious scholars (go on, Google any fundamentalist Muslim you can think of, chances are they were all married. Ayatollah Khameini was married and fathered seven children).

The lecturer then showed us numerous pictures or paintings of Rabia. One of her favorites was one made in India depicting a marriage proposal from a very wealthy and powerful suitor. I found the picture to be really weird -- I guess because she was an aesthetic and the painter was Indian, the painter depicted her amongst a lush forest with peacocks and various birds (certainly not what the Arabian Peninsula looks like) with her head shaved and wearing robes not unlike a Hare Krishna! Even weirder her robes were not covering her upper body so her breasts were visible!! Clearly that Indian painter took her to be an anesthetic in the Buddhist tradition -- and had never been to Arabia either. I'm sorry, I can't believe for a minute that any Muslim woman would be thrilled to be depicted topless with a shaved head! The lecturer said it was her favorite painting and that it sort of had a "21st century" look (??). I thought it looked really weird and out of place. For the life of me I can't see Ms. Rabia thinking it was a wonderful depiction and I'm pretty sure she never sat in the jungle with a shaved head, topless, with a sitar when someone came by with a marriage proposal – c’mon! I Googled to try to find the painting but unfortunately couldn't find it. Shame, it would have been interesting to post.

None of her writings survive but she is credited for promoting the Divine Love of Allah and her miracles and accomplishments are still known in the Islamic world today.

Anyway, it was an okay lecture. I liked the lecture on Buruni better because it seemed to be more grounded in fact and scientific achievement rather than a hagiography of a mystic. I guess her accomplishments were more on the religious side rather than achievements in a scientific field but it was difficult for me to ascertain how much of her teachings actually permeated throughout the Islamic world and influence current views on Islam. She was definitely well-known enough to have a couple of films made about her life, and there are numerous books that discuss her, so for all of us non-Muslim layman she's probably on the same level of fame as Joan of Arc.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A quick trip to England

I was away in England for four days visiting a friend and picking up a few things. Weather was pleasant, did a bit of shopping, did a nice londonwalk tour of the Strand, hit a bunch of pubs, and even went to Stamford Bridge (no, there wasn't a game going on at the time).

My friend came up with an excellent idea, spend a day visiting Oxford. I've never really been outside of London so it sounded like a great idea.

Unfortunately as we were leaving an emergency came up and my friend had to leave but I decided to continue on, if only to get out of his hair for a day so he could deal with things in peace. There is an excellent bus service called OxfordTube that runs buses 24 hours a day between various places in London and Oxford. Cost about 16 pounds round-trip which isn't bad given that it's about an hour-and-a half to two-hour trip each way.

Oxford was really nice, a lot of old historic buildings surrounded by a town with lots of shops and services. First order of business, get the breakfast my friend was planning to introduce me to:






An Irish fry, from an Irish bar and restaurant in the city.

Yes, this breakfast is just -- wrong. Fried food and lots of it, and potato bread. And yes, that's a beer (it was actually a little after 12 so it wasn't technically breakfast). My mother's cringing right now as she looks at the photo :-)

When I was younger my family and I would have a similar breakfast on Sunday, which we referred to as an Ulster Fry, and was much like what I got at the restaurant. The thing that really made it remind me of those breakfasts at home was the potato bread (in the photo hidden under the eggs), I can't recall eating potato bread at any other time back home except with a Fry.

I believe that my Mom, who works in the health profession, eventually stopped the Ulster Fry at home just due to how unhealthy it was but it was nice to have one for old times sake.

After that huge meal I wandered around to take a look at a lot of the old buildings and then lucked out and happened by a tourist office just as they were having a walking tour. I got one of the last places and off we went to see a couple of the major buildings, including some of the original university areas and the exam hall, followed by a tour of one of the colleges.

Now Oxford has a method of teaching its students that is very different from how universities are run in North America. Oxford is divided into a number of colleges, I believe about 38, and you apply to enter one of the colleges. At the college you will be given residence with the other students (at least during the first year, possibly longer), eat in the college dining hall, participate on the college teams and so forth. But don't think of this college in terms of a North American one -- each college tends to have a few hundred students. You will also be assigned a tutor (or maybe tutors?) whom you will meet with weekly to discuss subjects in your field of study and provide him with essays that you will read out to him. This forms the vast majority of your homework. They do have lectures at the University and you will usually attend certain ones based on the recommendation of your tutor, but most of the work you do is through your discussions and essays for the tutor. My friend also told me (as he went to Oxford) that you become very specialized in your field of study -- there are few if any electives, your time is spent studying your field. At the end of each year you write exams.

Now these colleges are not split up by field of study, colleges have a wide variety of tutors available for most subjects so your colleagues in your college will be from a wide range of fields. You might be studying English but the person who stays next to you might be studying music, history, science, or whatever.

Each college has a lot of autonomy so has different traditions, rules, and so forth. Some colleges allow tourists to visit it at certain times for a fee, other colleges never allow tourists (such as the college Bill Clinton attended). Our tour group got to visit Queen’s College, which only allows in tourists from this particular tour, and only 19 at a time. We got to see the grounds, the dining hall, the garden of the Dean, and its chapel, all of which were centuries-old, while the tour guide told us about the specific traditions and things that go on in this college. We were also shown the outside of some other colleges, such as Oriel (sp?) College, where Cecil Rhodes (of the Rhodes scholarships) studied. It was a great tour. I also liked how the guide pointed out that, for the benefit of Harry Potter fans since some parts of the films were shot in Oxford, that Harry Potter was fictional and doesn't really exist! Twice though he did point out where certain scenes in whatever Potter film were shot. Not surprisingly Harry Potter fans love Oxford and I think you can get specific Harry Potter-based tours.

Both J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) and C.S. Lewis (Narnia) were at Oxford and our tour showed us a door that the tour guide claimed inspired the doorway in The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. I tried a brief Google search it but didn't really come up with much so I'm still not sure about the claim, the door seemed pretty new and looked designed to inspire mythical figures.

I also learned that Rhodes scholarships, which per Mr. Rhodes Trust are given to citizens of the Commonwealth plus the United States and Germany (though Germany fell off the list twice around the war years). I always wondered about that as I thought it was always just for Commonwealth citizens so how did Bill Clinton get one?

I also learnt that former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke holds a beer drinking record at Oxford.

I kind of wish I could've gone to Oxford as the system they have their sounds interesting but intensive. Let's face it if you are having discussions with a tutor every week he will quickly figure out if you're slacking off.