Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Woman with a Veil, a Man with a Book

During the Swiss minarets controversy I noted that there was no way such a law like that could exist in Canada. I may have spoken too soon.

There was a recent controversy over a woman named Naema Ahmed, who was barred from participating in government classes in Quebec because she wore a niqab (veil) and would not take it off in class. There may have been more to this, some said she was doing other things such as not facing the class when speaking and so on but that's not what's important. What's important is the reaction from the Québec government, a bill to ban women in niqab from receiving public services.

Looking at passing a law!? Uh-oh, that does not sound like a step in the right direction. Perhaps the recent controversy about burqas in France is starting to rub off in Québec. I don't have an issue with requiring the removal of a veil for certain key things (drivers licenses and other picture-based ID, security checks etc.) but to consider passing a law banning veils for reasons like it might muffle their speech in a class (oh no!! The horror!) is utterly ridiculous. Maybe we should consider banning scarves in the winter, after all they might muffle our speech a bit.

This is the part that gets me -- we in the West keep going on about how we embrace freedom and personal liberty and this is what makes us the great societies we are now, and encourage other countries to do the same, yet at the same time contemplate passing laws that are designed to place restrictions on a specific group of people, the same people we keep telling should embrace personal freedom. It's hypocritical. So what if someone wants to wear a veil? We allow people to wear piercings all over their body, have strange haircuts, tattoos, or what have you. As far as I'm concerned if a guy can have a ring through his eyebrow a woman can wear a veil.

We as a Western society need to take the high road and stop preaching freedom on one hand while restricting freedoms on the other. Freedom means that some people will just adopt the style of dress that is different from the norm and that's the price we pay for freedom. So yes that means some women will wear veils in Canada -- who cares, get over it people.

Now Québec is a French society and unlike the rest of Canada I believe the law is based on civil law not British common law. I don't know how well that would interact with the federal system and to what extent a law banning veils could be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. With any luck if the Québec government does try passing a law it gets appealed and quashed.


The other day I was browsing around a bookstore and when I got to the science section was surprised to see an entire shelf dedicated to a book they just got in. The book was Arabic so I didn't know the title but I definitely recognize the picture on the cover -- Prof. Richard Dawkins. Turns out the book was an Arabic translation of Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think.

My surprise is primarily due to the fact that Prof. Dawkins writes books primarily on two topics: evolutionary biology and atheism. Not surprisingly in the Middle East you can sometimes find his books on the former (the ancestor's tale is one of my favorites) and you will never find any of his books on the latter. He does not mince his words in his treatment of organized religions and one of his recent books, the God Delusion, even stirred up a lot of protest from religious groups in the West. I don't think that book is sold anywhere in the Middle East, I tried to look for it once in Dubai without success and I have never seen it in Qatar. I figure if it's not available in Dubai it's unlikely to be available anywhere. [If anyone reading this knows where it would be available for sale in the Middle East feel free to correct me]

Thankfully whatever misgivings this region has about his (anti)religious books does not extend into his scientific work, which is available in bookstores, but this is the first time I've seen a book about him translated into Arabic.

I wonder if any of his books are available in Arabic?

Friday, March 26, 2010


So the other day I was chatting with a Qatari colleague about what he got up to over the weekend and after telling me a few things he nonchalantly added on the end...

... "oh, and I got engaged on Thursday."

Oh, was that all! Just a standard weekend then?! :-)

He just didn't know how to tell me. Apparently in Arabic there is a specific phrase one says to people to announce that you got engaged but it has no equivalent in English so he wasn't sure how exactly to break the news to English-speaking people.

Anyway the proper response is "Mabrruk", the Arabic word for congratulations.

This is also a great opportunity for me (and for those of you out there who read this blog) to get a firsthand account of the Qatari wedding process. My colleague said it was okay as long as I don't use names or give away much in the way of personal details.

Now engagements and weddings are not the same throughout the Islamic world, cultural differences play a large role. Gulf Arabs tend to be very conservative and I'm willing to bet their weddings would be very different from a wedding in Indonesia or Lebanon. That said it is extremely difficult to declare certain things about the process to be purely cultural and other things to be purely Islamic -- this region has been Muslim for 1400 years and Islam underpins so much of daily life that the two are fully intertwined to the point where many cultural activities may have had Islamic roots that people don't even really think about anymore, like in the West why 13 is considered an unlucky number or why we say "bless you"after someone sneezes. The best I can do is that in any blog posts about the engagement and wedding if I can find something in the Qur'an or Hadiths directly related to it I'll let you know, otherwise we will have to go on the assumption that it is more strongly influenced by local culture.

Here's what I learned about the engagement process:
-- his parents and her parents agreed that it might be a suitable match, at which point he went with his parents to her house to meet her and her family
-- after the first meeting apparently my friend and the lady both thought it went well so a second meeting with the families was arranged
-- after the second meeting they agreed to be engaged

I think I previously mentioned in my blog that Qataris have arranged marriages, love marriages are not common (actually I've never heard of one but I'm sure they occur at least occasionally).

Anyway, on to some other details:

-- They are not first cousins. I noted once that it is common for first cousins to marry in many parts of the Islamic world, including Qatar, and while I do know one Qatari who married his first cousin it that is not the case this time. [The Qur'an specifically lists who a person is not allowed to marry, first cousins are okay. This is important since if a woman is going to be escorted by a husband or male relative it can't be someone she is eligible to marry]

-- Once engaged many families will allow the lady to go out on dates with her fiancé, chaperoned by one of her male relatives. Many, not all. In the case of my friend that will not be happening. He is allowed to come over to her family's home for dinner though, and they are allowed to talk to each other on the phone so that they can get to know one another.

Naturally to Westerners this seems a bit extreme but I believe it is to protect the reputation of the lady. An engagement does not always mean the couple will get married, if during the course of their chats they determine that they are really not compatible then the wedding will be called off. The lady can then go find a more suitable fiancé with her reputation intact. Now that I think about it perhaps it was wrong of me to say this seems a bit extreme, it actually seems rather Victorian, like a Jane Austen novel, so it wasn't all that long ago that the British would be doing something similar.
[And yes, she should be able to call it off. The Qur'an states that a woman should not be forced to marry. Sadly that rule does not appear to always be applied consistently throughout the Islamic world]

-- The wedding will likely be this upcoming winter when the weather is cooler, in which case the men's celebration can be held outside. The timing of it is still to be decided and will likely depend more on the availability of halls than anything else.

-- They will not be doing anything to determine "auspicious dates" for the wedding. [The Qur'an notes sorcery and other forms of divination is a sin so few Arabs would use astrology and the like to determine favorable times, nor would they believe that certain days would be more auspicious than others]

-- The groom and his family will be paying for the wedding and related celebrations.

-- And I've already been told I'll be invited!

I'll keep updating as more news comes in over the year. I've decided to create new tag, "Qatari wedding" so that it will be easier for people to find all the posts about local weddings.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Grand Hyatt

A while ago I mentioned that I had taken care of my friend's cats. To thank me for coming to the rescue (they had someone lined up and that person had to cancel -- four hours before my friends were flying out for three weeks vacation) they paid for a night at the Grand Hyatt Hotel here in Doha for me. My friends occasionally use the Hyatt as a getaway to relax and unwind and they were staying the weekend there to celebrate their daughter's first birthday so invited me along. This also worked out well for me because at the staff Christmas party I won a raffle for a free massage at the Hyatt's spa that had to be used by the end of March.

Rather than go into a detailed description of everything that happened, which would make this post seem like a paid advertisement for the hotel, I'll just say two things:

1) we had a great time and I had a comfortable night's sleep

2) the staff were really cool about their daughter's birthday. My friends had ordered a cake for the room for that evening but while having lunch at one of the hotel's restaurants they had surprised us with a large cake for her. We thought that must have been the cake my friend's ordered and since the hotel knew where we were eating lunch they sent it there but when we got back to the room another cake was there, plus sparklers for us to use, and they had strewn a dozen balloons on the floor of the room for her (which she really liked, she had great fun sitting amongst the balloons and waving her arms to watch them fly around).

Thanks goes out to my friends, I had a great time.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Busy time for Doha

This is a pretty exciting week for Doha, there is a lot going on.

At the Aspire Sports Zone is the World Indoor Track and Field Championships. Many of the world's best track and field athletes are competing.

There is also a convention of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) being held here. In the next week or so we will find out whether the bluefin tuna will be declared a Category I endangered species, my understanding is that this would result in a moratorium on fishing for this species for something like five years. Japan will fight a ban all the way -- it consumes about two thirds of the bluefin tuna caught and it is a lucrative industry (a newspaper article noted that a single large bluefin tuna can fetch over $100,000 in Japanese markets).

Let's see, what else is going on...

The Qatar Natural History Group is off on a field trip to an archaeological dig in the north of the country. If it is the same site that I'm thinking of, it is a village that dates from around the 9th century A.D.

The Museum of Islamic Art normally holds scholarly lectures once a month regarding various items in Islamic Art but this month, thanks to visiting scholars, there are going to be three lectures! I attended the first one last Wednesday on the history of glassmaking in the Islamic World. The other two lectures are on the next two Wednesdays, I'll see if I can get out to them.

And just a bit of news to help counter Western perceptions that women in every Muslim country are somehow locked away in their homes, Qatar's newspapers have reported that the country is likely to have female judges soon. Women appear to be rising rapidly in the legal and judicial ranks in the country. That's good news, I noted a year or so ago in my blog an article from a local Law Society arguing against women becoming judges (the usual nonsense arguments one would find in the West in the early 20th century, they're too emotional . . . blah, blah, blah). Looks like the powers that be in Qatar thankfully did not heed their recommendation.

And hotel bars are starting to clamp down on dress code. Unbeknownst to me (until I tried to get in that is) they will not let men wearing shorts into a bar, long pants only. That my shorts went below the knee did not matter (the Qur'an states that men should at a minimum be covered from the navel to just below the knee), in hindsight I guess it was kind of funny to use a Qur'an passage to argue why I should be let into a bar! I'm not sure when the bars started getting picky about this, I do not go to bars often so for all I know it's been that way for the last year. That's a heads up to all the guys in Doha reading the blog, or planning to visit -- wear pants if you want to go to a bar.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Numerology? Or just because it's cool?

In Qatar and other parts of the GCC there is a secondary market for phone numbers or license plates that have certain number combinations. In Arabic newspapers there are apparently many classified ads for people buying and selling numbers. If you don't believe me Google "phone number auction", some phone numbers can get $100,000 or more. In Qatar getting a price of $5,000 for a desirable number is not unusual.

I'm not sure how one determines the market value of phone numbers and license plates but from my limited understanding what you would like is:

a) numbers with patterns (ex. 5545545 would be worth something)

b) numbers that repeat the same digit (so 5553749 would be worth less than 5553349)

c) numbers that are easy to remember (ex 4001234)

d) or low number license plates can be desirable. Not all license plates have six digits, earlier ones had three, four, or five digits. So license plate number of 1455 would be worth more than 267214.

e) and, if you're lucky, you might have a number that matches someone's license plate. They may call you up and ask if you're willing to sell it. For example a Qatari friend of mine has matching phone number and license plate, so his phone number might be 6472238 and his license plate 472238 [No this is not his real phone number and license plate, just an example, I'm not that crazy that I would give out his phone number on the Internet just to prove a point]

So I was curious about this, did this have something to do with numerology? Were there lucky numbers and unlucky numbers? Did Qataris avoid certain numbers for whatever reason?

Don't think this is a bizarre thing, the Chinese believe 8 is lucky and 4 is unlucky, many in the West believe 13 is an unlucky number, and 7 has always been viewed positively. To this day there are still buildings in the West that do not have a 13th floor. Plenty of cultures around the world have their lucky/unlucky numbers.

I've asked around and so far it does not appear that Qataris have an affinity towards certain numbers or consider others unlucky. While number associations in the West, such as 7 or 13, tend to have some kind of Christian origin (7 Heavens, 13 at the Last Supper [or was it because that's how many witches medieval Christians believed met at Devil-worshipping ceremonies?]) No one mentioned any particular Islamic association with certain numbers, and a quick review of the Bukhari Hadiths did not turn up anything either. I'll ask around a bit more. Until then it looks like there is a vibrant secondary market for phone numbers and license plates because Arabs just find certain combinations of numbers cool to have.

Sunday, March 07, 2010


First, I would just like to say hello to everyone who has found this blog through that article in ABODE magazine. *waves*

Today I was at a roundtable discussion at the MultaQa insurance conference regarding takaful, or what many people might know as Islamic insurance.

Why Islamic insurance? It goes something like this: Islam has prohibitions about gambling, rooted in a concept that Muslims should avoid transactions that are maysir, an Arabic term where the only outcome in a transaction are that one party wins and the other loses -- there is no chance that both could win or both could lose. Gambling is definitely maysir. In fact I have noted before in my blog how raffles here never have a separate entry fee so that they would not be maysir (you didn't pay extra for the ticket so you didn't lose anything if you do not win). Grocery stores typically have promotions where for every 50 riyal worth of groceries you purchase you automatically get raffle ticket. Even if you don't win you still received 50 riyal worth of groceries for your 50 riyal so you haven't really lost, thus not maysir.

So, is conventional insurance maysir? It would be difficult to argue that it is not. When you buy an insurance policy you pay an amount of money to the insurance company for the policy. From this point there are pretty much only two outcomes: if you make a claim on the policy the insurance company has to pay so you "win" and the insurance company loses; if you do not make a claim then the insurance company keeps your money and you do not get anything in return. This creates an issue for devout Muslims who are reluctant to purchase conventional insurance because of its maysir nature.

To get around this prohibition on maysir some entrepreneurial people developed sharia compliant insurance, otherwise known as takaful. In a takaful when you purchase a policy your money is pooled with other policyholders in a policyholder fund. The shareholders of the company charges a policyholder fund a fee in exchange for managing the company. If at the end of the year there is a profit then some of the surplus will be given back to you, either by a direct refund or by a reduction in the amount you have to pay when you renew the policy. This avoids maysir because now it is possible for both the policyholder and the company to "win" by sharing any profits.

There are other requirements to being sharia compliant, the company can't invest in prohibited things like alcohol, investments that bear fixed interest etc. but it would take me forever to go into all the details. Takaful companies usually have a sharia board of Islamic scholars who review any investments and products to ensure that the company is being run according to sharia principles.

The roundtable discussion spent a lot of time on a key issue -- that there is no consistently accepted meaning of takaful across the Islamic world. Due to local beliefs and regulations an insurance company in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Malaysia might all consider themselves takaful but be very different when compared to one another. In Saudi Arabia they are known as "co-operatives", and others might call themselves Islamic companies but others might argue that they are not takaful for whatever reason. A universally accepted definition of takaful apparently does not exist. Some international bodies, such as the IFSB, are trying to standardize definitions, but perhaps it will take time before they are accepted across the entire Islamic world. I'm not sure how successful it will be, imagine in the West trying to get a diverse range of Christian groups, such as Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, evangelical Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mennonites and Mormons, to come to an agreement on anything! I don't think we in the West would even bother trying.

One thing that there was no argument over, takaful insurance is gaining in popularity in the Middle East. Over the last eight years it has outpaced the growth in conventional insurance and some are hopeful that in time it will become larger than conventional insurance in Islamic countries. I think there is still a long way to go, while it is gaining ground in the Middle East in many countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia takaful has a very tiny market presence. I think Malaysia and Sudan have seen the biggest success. Time will tell if takaful becomes bigger than conventional insurance but the major market players are already paying attention. Well known insurance entities such as Chartis (i.e AIG) and Allianz have takaful operations and other conventional insurers in the region have either set up sharia compliant entities or are considering it. I believe there are also takaful companies now in Europe and the United States, drawing on a customer base from Islamic communities in those areas.

For the record, my insurance is still with a conventional insurer. Not because I have an issue with takaful, when I purchased my car it automatically came with one year's insurance from a conventional insurer, and I have simply renewed it with the same company.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The move

Sorry for not posting but I've been quite busy. Everything is signed, sealed, and delivered. I've moved!

Not out of Qatar, but to another apartment. Something closer to work that makes the commute easier. I should get about an hour of my life back every working day, which will be nice.

Unfortunately rents in the neighborhood were still high and had not been impacted much by a financial crisis or property downturn. I figure if I had waited another two or three months I could've wrangled a better deal but alas I could not wait. So I have myself a one-bedroom apartment for...

... Wait for it...

... Are you sitting down? ...

About $US 3,300 a month, not including utilities. (Hey, I've told you before that rents were unbelievable here.)

Can't be helped I'm afraid, that is just the price you pay for being here. Once I've unpacked and settled I will be able to post more frequently again.