Sunday, April 24, 2011

Gone Fishing!

This weekend Ali, a Qatari friend and colleague, arranged for a fishing trip for five of us from the office. On the day three of them bowed out (naqb’oon!) but luckily three of Ali's friends joined us (Hassan, Mahmoud and Mohammed) so the trip wasn't canceled.

We chartered a small boat complete with a driver, bait, net, fishing line, and non-alcoholic drinks.

First stop was about 4 km from the shore, a floating Coast Guard station where you had to report who the occupants were and how long you would be. No I didn't take any pictures of the Coast Guard station, you learn quickly in the Middle East not take pictures of any kind of police/military/security installation.

We went out a few more kilometers and then dropped a long net, which we were going to pick up our way back.

After another couple of kilometers we stopped for fishing. I'm not up on my fishing terminology but I will describe what we did as "free-line" fishing. No rod or reel was involved. You had a fishing line with two or three hooks and a weight, baited the hooks (we used squid that the boat assistant helpfully chopped up for us), then you let the line sink into the water to the seabed and hold onto it with your hands ready to yank up when a fish bit the hook. While some of us used gloves we would only use them on one hand, you needed one hand ungloved to feel the slight tugging when the fish was nibbling the bait. The Gulf is a fairly shallow body of water, even 10 km out I figure the water was only about 35 to 40 feet deep.

These guys knew what they were doing -- we caught fish right away. Within 10 minutes we had a few fish, and while I was not as successful as the others it maybe took all of 20 minutes for me:

We were mostly catching a fish called Sherry (sp?). They are not particularly big fish like salmon but then again there's no way you could catch big fish using your bare hands on a fishing line! I didn't care, I was just glad to catch one. It's usually embarrassing when everybody else can catch fish but not you.

Soon the fish were building up in the boat but after a while they weren’t biting so we moved to some other spots to collect more. Occasionally we would catch something else like a small grouper or a small yellow fish called Nasr in Arabic. We kept pulling in more and more:

Most of the guys caught well over a dozen each, I caught six. My fish seemed to have a particular knack for eating my bait without biting the hook. More often than not I would feel nibbles, pull up the line, and see bare hooks with no bait on them! Not sure how they always did that. Ali was standing next to me and catching lots of fish so I started bugging him that he was stealing my fish.

One guy almost caught a barracuda! It was probably two and half feet long but as soon as he tried to haul it up into the boat the line snapped and it got away. I didn't manage to get a picture of it but I do have some wild proof that barracuda were definitely near the boat:

Yup, Ali caught a Sherry and while hauling it up a barracuda cut it in half! It had to be the most bizarre catch I've ever seen -- a half-fish.

After about four hours of fishing the sun went down and luckily for us in the darkness Mohammed spotted a large cargo ship bearing down on us, with almost no lights on it, so we maxed the engines to get away. We decided then to end the fishing and go back for the net. For some reason lugging up the net was a real effort. We soon discovered why:

The net had caught some steel fishing traps, three of them. We had to haul them all up to free our net before putting the traps back in the water. But the net had still caught a number of fish:

Including a parrotfish.

Mohammed, who fishes frequently in the Gulf, had never seen one caught here before. He decided to take it to his uncle who I guess knew more about fish in the Gulf.

After checking in with the Coast Guard we headed back and divided up the pretty full cooler of fish that we had. I only took about seven fish, what was I going to do with a bunch of fish? Thankfully I know some people with of a lot of pet cats who will hopefully use them.

All in all a great day was had. Free-line fishing in the Gulf was a great way to spend the day.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Qatari Wedding Photos

I mentioned in my blog a couple months ago that I attended a Qatari wedding (my friend Mohammed) and I've managed to acquire a few photos of the event. Mohammed said it was okay for me to post them.

First, the groom:

Sorry ladies, he's already taken!

(Actually wait a sec -- he can have more than one wife! Guess he’s still available if you don’t mind sharing.)

As the groom he is wearing a black robe called a bisht, which is typically worn only by VIPs, or at special events. Typically only the groom and his father (and perhaps an uncle or the bride's father) will wear it at a wedding. It's a great way to find the groom in a crowded room considering almost all the other Arabs will be wearing white dishdasha as well. Aside from the groom, his or the bride’s father, or an uncle, in the three weddings I have attended I have only once seen a guest wearing a bisht, and I found out later that gentleman was a revered close relative.

My understanding is that typically black bishts are worn in the evening, during the day the bisht will be a lighter color such as brown or yellow. This is not a hard and fast rule, occasionally a black bisht might be worn during the day, but I don't think lighter-coloured bishts are worn in the evening. In every wedding I've attended the groom and his relatives wore black bishts.

And there was sword dancing, here are two of my friends dancing past the singers:

And the groom joined in occasionally, when he wasn't greeting guests:

As an aside I would just like to point out that at least one person is wearing a black thobe. While white is the most common color amongst Qataris, in the winter other colors such as black or brown can be worn. They are made of a thicker material to protect against the cold of winter. If you see a picture of a Qatari in a non-white thobe chances are that the picture was taken in winter.

Thanks for sharing the photos Mohammed, and congratulations. If I can get hold of any photos with me in it I will post those as well.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Happy Birthday Karen

It’s my sister's birthday today so I just wanted to wish her a great day.

For the occasion I decided to look through some of my pictures to post this great one of her, from her wedding:

Happy Birthday Sis.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Gender Ratios in Qatar and other Islamic Countries

I was reading recent news articles about the 2010 census in India and a key item in the census was the surprising lack of women. According to the data the number of male children to female children under 6 is 109.7:100 (I believe for the overall Indian population it is 106.4:100). Typically the ratio should be around 101:100, though in the West there tends to be slightly more women than men. Yes, that means that worldwide there are more men than women, at birth the ratio of males to females is not completely equal, worldwide it tends to be around 105-107:100 but since men tend to die younger and also die a bit more frequently as children the adult ratio worldwide is typically around 101:100.

Yes, biology slightly favours giving birth to a male child. I'm not entirely sure why myself but I'm guessing there are many websites on biology that explain the phenomenon.

In India there is a significant preference for boys, both for taking care of the parents when they get older and because in many Indian societies the bride’s family has to pay significant amounts of money to the groom and his family for a marriage. This can make having daughters burdensome. As a result many Indians use ultrasound to determine if the fetus is a boy or a girl and have an abortion if it's a girl. India has passed laws to make sex screening of babies illegal but it is rarely enforced so the practice is still common. Wealth and education are not necessarily a factor, it appears that the gender ratio amongst the Indian middle class is no better.

According to the census India has 1.21 billion people now (Wow!). With only 940 women to every 1000 men by my rough calculations there are over 35 million missing women, and given the gender ratio is worse for children that discrepancy will only grow.

So what has this got to do with Qatar? I find that sometimes in the West people confuse social issues in India or other parts of Asia with social issues in the Middle East. Combine that with the West’s criticisms about how women are treated in the Middle East and many assume that similar gender ratio issues happen in the Middle East as well.

Well Qatar also had a 2010 census and the results are interesting. Qatar does have one of the most skewed gender-ratios in the world (100:31.6) but that is because of the hundreds of thousands of expatriates who are here in the construction and oil sectors, who are preponderantly men. When you look at the data for only Qatari citizens you get a more balanced picture.

Now for some reason they have not published the total number of Qatari men and women, instead you have to look at statistics such as people age 10 and older by region of the country, or work statistics. I grabbed the population age 10 or older statistics:

Qatari Men: 85,819
Qatari Women: 88,460

This means that the gender ratio is 100:103! It's an unusual result because for the reasons I gave above it would be unusual for there to be more women than men. There could be a number of reasons -- more men have gone abroad for education or work, the vehicular death rate is high here and I assume that it is primarily males who die in accidents, who knows. It does show that despite issues about women's rights in the Islamic world there is no issue here with female infanticide like in India.

So why is that? Here’s a few reasons:

Reason 1: the Qur’an says not to. Sura 6:151 makes expressly clear you should not kill your children out of poverty (as Allah will provide for them somehow).

Reason 2: the Qur’an has many verses about marriage and notes that the groom must pay the bride a bride-price (Mahr) which is hers to keep even if they divorce. And if a lady dies her parents are entitled to some of the inheritance. There is no issue about girls being a financial burden to marry them off.

Reason 3: divorce is acceptable as it is mentioned numerous times in the Qur’an. Thus marital splits do not necessarily have to end with killing the wife so that the groom can remarry (and under Islam he can have up to four wives anyway).

So does this mean there is no issue with gender ratios in the Islamic world? Sadly, no. While Qatar appears to be fine unfortunately in other countries societal customs have survived and in many cases have somehow been blended into the religion despite the fact that these customs have no basis in Islam. Case in point, the gender ratio in Pakistan. Sadly in Pakistan the gender ratio is little better than it is in India. I found a great paper on it here:

Gender Analysis in Pakistan (by Gary Smith)

I suspect that many of the Indian customs in discriminating against girls continues on in Islamic Pakistan. The paper has some excellent maps and diagrams showing the gender ratio in both Pakistan and India and, not surprisingly, the areas of India with the worst gender ratio are the areas in the north-west near Pakistan, while the areas with the worst gender ratio in Pakistan is the half of the country closest to India. It appears that the cultural biases towards girls has survived the introduction of Islam centuries ago.

This is an issue that I think the West should really be focusing on. Forget about veils and other "symbols of oppression", there are literally millions of missing women in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh and efforts need to be made to change attitudes. The paper notes that there was some success in Sri Lanka with programs that provided food and health care to women, any programs like that should be brought into areas with poor gender ratios.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Arab Card Games

This Saturday I had two of my Qatari friends over to play some card games. Qataris, like most Muslims, do not gamble but that does not stop them from playing card games for entertainment.

So while eating chips and dip they taught me two card games currently popular in Qatar.

1) “Hand” (Yes, an English word. It is not called by the Arabic word for “hand” (yad))

This game is similar to gin rummy except that it is played with two decks and your hand is 14 cards. Much like Rummy you gather three of a kinds, four of a kinds, and runs of suited cards but because you play with two decks any 3 or 4 of a kind must have cards of different suits. Your four Kings cannot contain two King of diamonds. However you cannot put down your runs/kinds while you play -- you have to wait until you have all 14 cards in runs and kinds before you can put them down. Also, unlike Rummy, with the exception of the very first play you cannot pick up the card that's been discarded by the previous player unless you are using it to put your 14-card hand down. This means you need to keep track of what cards get discarded since you will have no chance to get them later and possibly change your strategy once certain cards you need have been discarded by other players. There are also two jokers in the deck and they are wild but you can only use one of them to complete your hand. If for some reason you have both jokers then you will have to discard one of them, typically when you finish your hand.

Scoring is unusual. Lowest score wins. A player who finishes the hand loses 60 points and the other players get 200 points. However there are also multipliers: finishing by discarding a joker is double points, having your hand all the same color is double points, having your hand all the same suit I think is worth even more and so on. I believe there are all sorts of local rules and variants that adjusts the scores as well (for example, one of my Qatari friends said his friends tend to play that if someone completed their hand by picking up someone else's discard then the player who made that discard gains 50 additional points). You play a total of nine rounds and whoever has the least points wins.

Because you can never pick up the card that's been discarded everyone spends the early rounds simply drawing the top card and quickly discarding. The game is fast, people play with a lot of speed so that you hopefully will not be able to keep track of what's been discarded.

This game can get serious, in the comments section some guy is, like, all-caps freaking out about aspects of the rules. Just ask other people at the table how to play and they'll help you.

2) Brazillia (also Arabic for "Brazilian woman" but may be coincidental, my friends had no idea why it's called that)

[May 19, 2011 update: my friend Abdulla did some research and discovered two things:

1) in North America the game is known as buraco. The link has a better description than my blog post.

2) it likely got its Qatar name because a member of the royal family was introduced to it during a trip to Brazil and he introduced it to Qatar. That sounds like an urban legend to me though.]

This game also requires two decks. Players are dealt 11 cards and much like Rummy you have to do runs/kinds. Two side decks of 11 cards each are also dealt. The difference here is you can drop run/kinds once you have three or more and can add to them as the game progresses (so if you have three Kings dropped and draw a King you can simply add it to the three on the table already) but they don't count for a score unless you have seven cards (a run of seven or seven of a kind). Anytime when it is your turn you can pick up the discard pile -- but you have to pick up the entire discard pile.

2s are wild but you can only use a single 2 to complete any of the run/kinds you drop. Once you have included a 2 with a run/kind you cannot get it back, even if you draw the card that the 2 was representing. You can play that card though and have the 2 be a different card in the run. So for example if you put down 9-10-2-Q-K of spades, and later draw the Jack of Spades, you can put it down and now have 2-9-10-J-Q-K, with the 2 being an 8 or A.

You cannot get rid of the last card in your hand unless it is used to complete a run/kind of seven cards, though some house rules allow you to put the last card in the discard pile. Once that is done you're allowed to pick up a stack of 11 cards (previously dealt and kept to the side). After that once you have no cards you can grab the second stack of 11, if there are no stacks remaining the game is over.

When the game ends you count up your score. You get 100 points for every group of seven cards you put down with a bonus 100 if no wilds were used in the seven cards, 100 points for being the first to finish, bonus points if a 2 was used in it but not as a wildcard, -100 if your team never managed to pick up one of the extra stacks of 11, and then you also add up the value of the cards on the table (3-7 worth 5, 8-K and wilds worth 10, Aces worth 15) but subtract the value of the cards that are still in your hand. There are also other little things you can do to get points which I'm sure varies by who’s playing. My friends play a variant that when you're dealing out the cards for the side stacks if you picked up a stack of 22 cards then that is worth 100 points as well.

If after the first round someone has more than 1000 points and other players have less than 1000 points then in the next round the players with more than 1000 points cannot drop any run/suits unless the point value of that is worth 75 points or more. Winner is the first to 2000 points.

If there are four players then you play two teams of two. Once you put cards down your partner can put cards on it as well to help complete the run of seven (so if you put down 7-8-9-10 of diamonds and your partner has the Jack of diamonds he can put it down during his turn). In a four player game you don't have to put down a run if you pick up the discard pile. And no you're not allowed to tell your partner what cards are in your hand.

I will try playing these card games again next time my friends and I meet up, which should allow me to understand what people are playing next time I go to a shisha café. Playing card games are popular amongst the Arab clientele there.