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.


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

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).

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.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Museum lectures

So I forgot to mention that the Museum of Islamic Art has started their lecture series again. This time they're having a series of five lectures each focusing on a different "Great Arab Thinker". The first one was two weeks ago and was about a scholar from the 11th century named Abu Rayhan Biruni. Wiki entry here:

He was born in Uzbekistan but the lecturer noted he was likely of Persian descent. He wrote a ton of books on a wide variety of subjects including astronomy, geology, sociology, and so forth. Although not many of his works survive they were widely read by scholars in the Islamic world at the time and he was very influential in the works of later scholars.

One of his best-known works was a book about India where he listened and learned about why Hindus did not get along with outsiders and attempted to describe their culture and beliefs in an objective way, which was groundbreaking in its time. The professor giving the lecture focused a lot on this work and its picture of Indian society at the time. It is considered one of the first anthropological studies of another culture.

When it came time for the question-and-answer I asked whether his works had been widely distributed in the West during the Middle Ages. I asked because I had not heard of him before whereas many Islamic scholars of the time such as Avicenna, Geber, and Maimonides had numerous of their works translated into Latin and widely distributed throughout Europe. The professor replied that he was not well-known at the time although many later works by Islamic scholars are clearly influenced by him though work directly written by him did not generally reach Europe. The professor then noted that, surprisingly, it was not until around the 18th century that Europeans became interested in Biruni and his writings, more specifically British colonialists. Apparently the British were starting to have significant influence in India and did not know much about Indian culture. Attempts to find writings about Indian culture, in a language that the British scholars could translate, turned up Biruni’s extensive writings on India -- from there his book became widely read in Britain in the 19th century as a definitive work on India. This despite the fact that the book had been written over 800 years earlier.

Biruni is still widely regarded throughout Central Asia and other parts of the Islamic world. Statues, conferences dedicated to his work, and other tributes are found in many countries such as Iran and Pakistan.

One of the contentious issues that came up during the lecture was that the Museum of Islamic art was doing a series on "Great Arab Thinkers" but as one person in the audience pointed out Biruni was an Uzbek of Persian origin and thus was not an Arab (Persians are not, and have never been, Arabs. I suspect many Persians get a little miffed at being called Arabs by unknowing Westerners). The lecturer pointed out that, yes, Biruni was not born in Arabia, and was not of Arab ancestry, but the series considered him a great Arab thinker because all of his works were written in Arabic which was a scientific language of the day. The lecturer noted that Biruni would never have had Arabic as his main language, he would have spoken Uzbek at home and probably Persian when dealing with people from other regions, yet he wrote all of his scholarly works in Arabic. There was a bit of chat about whether this was an attempt for the Arab world to claim a Persian scholar but given that the lecturer was American I don't think it was his intent to downplay Biruni’s real heritage and somehow try to make him an Arab.

Anyway I enjoyed the lecture because while I have heard of many scholars and studied a couple of them, such as Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber), I learned about a very prolific scholar from the Islamic Golden Age that I had never heard of before.

The next lecture is Wednesday night, I will be there.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

An arabic gift

When I got back to Canada a Qatari friend of mine had a gift for me. Here it is:

A set of a prayer beads known as a misbaha (pronounced mis-ba-(h)a, you barely say the h), though in some Arabic speaking countries it might be known as a ‘subha’.

Misbaha are prayer beads used for a ritual called ‘dhikr’ where the various names of God are spoken as part of a prayer. Traditionally you say the names 99 times so the misbaha assists in counting, you can slide your finger across the bead while you say the names. This means that a misbaha will have a number of beads to make counting to 99 easier, my misbaha has 33 beads, with two tiny beads at the end of each 11th bead. Many misbaha are longer and can contain 66 or even 99 beads.

It is common for misbaha to be carried by Arab men in the Gulf, and most will have one in their pocket or hanging from their hand. It is not solely for use in prayer but appears to be somewhat of an accessory, many times you will see an Arab man nonchalantly rubbing his fingers along it while thinking, chatting with friends, or even while talking on the phone.

There is no set rules for what a misbaha has to be made of. The beads can be made of plastic, stone, wood, or any other material. Amber appears to be a preferred material but I do not know if that is historical or a recent fashion. Stores that sell them tend to have a wide variety including turquoise and other minerals. I have seen misbaha of all sorts of colors.

I thought it was really nice of my friend to buy me one of these. I've been keeping it in my pocket and occasionally rubbing the beads. Maybe it will help me stop biting my nails.