Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas. I went to friend's place for a Christmas Eve dinner and then I had a late lunch/early dinner Christmas Day hosted by some other friends of mine. Turkey and all the trimmings for Christmas. Like my eggnog woes someone else lamented that you can't find pumpkin pie here. C'est la vie I guess, sometimes you just have to roll with the punches of not being in North America. It is a shame though as pumpkin pie is my favourite. For the Christmas Eve function I made some eggnog (sans alcohol) and while I would not say it was the world's greatest eggnog it turned out reasonable enough.

The other day I was on my lunch break at the mall with some Qatari colleagues when one of them remembered that he needed to shop for something we do not really know much about in the West -- aoud. So off we went to an Arab perfume shop in the mall where raw aoud is available for sale.

Aoud (or sometimes spelt 'oud' but that is also the same spelling for an Arabic guitar) is a wood that Qataris like to place in incense burners. The wood is from a Southeast Asian tree called an Agar tree. When a certain type of fungus attacks the tree it fights back by exuding a resin, which also happens to be a powerful fragrance. When the resin-infused wood is burnt it gives off a fragrant smoke which Qataris use to add a scent to rooms or clothing.

When we got to the shop the owner started pulling out small chests where he keeps pieces of aoud and my colleagues took the time to point out to me how to identify various qualities of aoud. Bands of colour is important (the word is normally light in colour, darker bands indicate the resin) and a tiny piece was placed in incense burner so that we could see the resin boil and create the smoke (another way to tell how much resin is in the wood). While the tiny piece was in the burner they showed me how to brush the smoke towards your face to get the scent of the wood, also mentioning that smoke from good quality aoud will not cause your eyes to water. Then they demonstrated how you hold the burner a few feet under your face and let your gurtra hang down over the smoke so that the scent of the smoke infuses the clothing. Much like tobacco smoke if you get enough in the clothing the scent will stay for a couple of days.

All in all it was a great lesson in Arab culture.

Now you might be wondering, isn't this 'quality checking' a bit much for a bit of wood you burn? You would think so until you realise how expensive the stuff is. The first box we were shown contained low-quality aoud that was selling for about QR 300/kg (US$80/kg or ~US$35/pound). That was the low-quality stuff. One of the boxes contained aoud selling for QR 1000/kg (US$270/kg), and the best-quality aoud that the store had went for . . . . brace yourself . . . . US$9500 a kilo!! I nearly fell over, almost $10,000 for a kilo of wood! Aoud is serious business in the Gulf.

I now want to grow an Agar tree in my home!

Monday, December 22, 2008


Christmas in Qatar does not have quite the excitement that it would in most parts of the world, not least in part because Muslims do not celebrate Christmas. Things have been changing a little bit over the time I've been here though. The Christmas displays in the malls seem to be more and more noticeable every year, from very subdued beginnings when I first arrived to nice displays in the middle of malls. Most, if not all, malls in Qatar do not do the Santa thing though. Some hotels do but by and large Santa does not make the widespread appearances that he does in Western countries leading up to the Christmas season. Combine that with the fact that it is still over 20° and it just does not feel like Christmas. I keep forgetting that it is only a few days away.

Two days ago I want to the grocery store to get some eggnog and guess what -- there wasn't any. Not because it had sold out, there just wasn't any. I don't know why I thought stores would have it, just going on autopilot I guess. I lamented the lack of a eggnog at work and a coworker recalled that two years ago a different grocery store did carry it. So last night it was out to the other grocery store (I even had a request from an American friend to pick up some for him as well if I could find it). No luck. I might just have to make some from scratch, however you do that. I'm sure there are good recipes on the internet. I wanted some so that my Qatari friends could try it as they had never even heard of eggnog before. Even many of my British co-workers had never tried it, I guess it is a very North American thing.

Another thing about Christmas in Qatar that takes a bit of getting used to is that it is not a public holiday. Thankfully my office does give us Christmas off work but for most it is just another day as usual. Case in point I was at the physiotherapist today and after I was done I went to the counter for booking my next appointment to be told that it would be on the 25th at 8am. I said "great, thanks", walked out the door, then went "wait a minute..." .

So I get to start my Christmas morning with a physiotherapy appointment! ( I guess it's a gift that keeps on giving.)

My Qatari colleagues were not that excited about having Christmas off work since of course they weren't really going to be doing anything with the day off. I joked with them noting that wouldn't it be nice to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Isa (Isa = Jesus in Arabic, according to the Qur'an Jesus was a Prophet of God as well) since most Muslims celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed? They knew I was joking of course, while most Muslim countries have a day set aside to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed, Wahhabist-Islam nations like Qatar and Saudi Arabia do not. My understanding is that under the form of Islam practised in Qatar and Saudi Arabia while they revere the Prophet they are careful not to revere him to such an extent that it could be seen as almost worshipping him, so having a holiday just for him would somehow detract from the proper focus on Allah. At least I think that is why they do not have birthday celebrations for him.

Oh well so it looks like the 25th will be an unusual Christmas Day for me. I am attending a late Christmas lunch/dinner at a friend's house so the day will not be a total wash. And I get to eat turkey. And maybe eggnog.

If I do not post before then have a Merry Christmas everyone!

Friday, December 19, 2008

National Day

I forgot to mention that December 18 was also Qatar's National Day so I got the day off work. Celebrating this day as the National Day is a relatively new phenomenon only a couple of years old. Before then the national day was September 3, the day Qatar gained independence from Britain, but the Emir decided to move it to December 18, the day the Al-Thani family took power something over a century ago.

I remember the first September 3 holiday that I had here and there was nothing going on in the way of festivities. Made sense I suppose, early September is still bloody hot. Moving it to December means that the temperatures are nice enough for the country to celebrate National Day. This year they had a military parade in the morning, horse races in the afternoon, and a fireworks show on the Corniche in the evening. I only went to the fireworks which were good but started way too late (10:00pm) and there was not much else in the way of activities on the Corniche so if you got down there early there was not much to do. And don't get me started on the traffic since thousands of people went down to the Corniche. Long story short -- nice fireworks, not sure if it was worth the effort to get there though.

Now back to Singapore. While wandering around I happened to come across something that I have heard of and always wanted to try -- a fish spa. This is where you put your feet and legs into a tank of water and tiny fish called doctorfish swarm over your feet and legs cleaning off the dead skin. It tickled so much I couldn't stop laughing! Imagine having fish go in-between your toes and nibble at the soles of your feet. So I was cracking up, and the staff were laughing because I was laughing. 20 minutes later I had nice and smooth feet. They also had a tank with bigger doctorfish but I did not like that as much as the bigger fish pinch a little and I was getting a little worried that they might actually take off some flesh. I will stick to the little fish.

If you ever see a fish spa give it a try.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Singapore eating

Okay so how was Singapore? In a word -- delicious.

Singapore is what you would call a 3-or-4-day city, not one of those places that could keep the tourist busy for a week or so like London or Paris, but it does have some things to do and things to see for a while. What were the touristy things I did? Raffles Hotel, Night Safari at the zoo, cruise down Singapore River, and went to see the Singapore Flyer (Singapore's equivalent of the London Eye). But mostly what I did was search out the various local cuisines available at hawker stalls and street markets throughout the city. A Singaporean colleague had given me a list of interesting night markets to try and dishes to eat. Sometimes finding those markets was a search in and of itself, and allowed me to see parts of the city that I think were a little off the beaten path of tourists. Not always of course, a few of these markets like Lau Pa Sat are well known but occasionally I was finding myself in places where were no other Westerners to be seen.

So rather than go into all the details here is a list of some of the things I ate during the trip:

Roasted duck noodle
Matcha lattes (from a place called OChaCha)
Toast with Kaya jam (from Ya Kun Kaya Toast outlet)
Hainanese chicken rice
Iced lychees
Spicy popiahs
Eel with green peppers
Sweet rice cakes with black bean and sesame paste
Laksa (sort of a curry fish soup)
Ice Kachang
Mixed-meat satay
Steamed BBQ pork buns
Chili tofu
Smoked eggs

The one thing I missed trying out on was deep fried carrot cake, a local specialty. Every time I went somewhere where I had heard they served a good version of this dish the place was either closed or too crowded. Maybe next time.

I know what you're thinking, going all these out of the way places to eat in night markets and stalls didn't I get sick? Well -- yes. Luckily though it was right at the end of the trip, literally as I got to the airport to catch the flight home. In the taxi to the airport I suddenly thought "I don't feel so good all of a sudden" and by the time I got to the airport my stomach had announced that it was time to sit back & relax as it was going to be emptying itself out about once an hour. So that wound up being the most hellish plane ride I have ever had. I was sick 4 times waiting for the flight and 7 more times during the 8-hour flight, I could not even keep down some water. Thankfully no one was sitting next to me as I would have felt really embarrassed being so ill. I was also grateful that it was just vomiting and not diarreha, but at the time that was a small consolation. When I got home I went straight to bed and was ill for another day.

Man, I had never experienced "traveller bug" before and don't want to again.

I have no idea what food caused it. I actually suspect it was a dish from a cafe at a mall that some cheese in it, not from some street stall, but I have no way to be sure.

And by the way the Raffles Hotel is the biggest rip-off ever! A Singapore Sling there was S$31 (US$21)! 21 bucks for one drink!! And a pint of beer was US$18, the same beer I could get for $4 down the street. Something about that hotel just seems to appeal to older Westerners who absolutely have to pay completely ridiculous prices just to say that they had a drink there. And no I did not have a Sling, for 21 US dollars I don't care that it was invented there. I went across the street to the Fairmont and had one for half the price.

Monday, December 08, 2008


So what has been up this week?

Well for starters the Museum of Islamic Art finally opened its doors to the public, after about three years of construction. I went there on Friday to meet with a friend and his wife and wander around. I must say it is a spectacular building. Well-designed, spacious, and the exhibits were nicely placed with a reasonable amount of space between them. While the museum is a decent size it is not so large as to cause "museum fatigue" which can happen at places like the British Museum or the Louvre, where there is just so much (albeit awesome) stuff it takes forever to see it all and you get tired. Your average tourist would probably go through the Islamic Museum in about three hours, more of course if they take the time to examine every item on display. We only went through about half of it since we knew we could come back some other time to see the rest. From what we saw there was a lot of pottery, carpets, jewellery, and calligraphy/books from various eras and places such as Spain, North Africa, Middle East, India, and Central Asia. Not a lot of paintings and sculpture but this is to be expected -- in many parts of the Islamic world art that depicted individuals was frowned upon for religious reasons. There were some exceptions such as paintings from Mughul India or the late Ottoman Empire, but by and large most Islamic artwork did not depict people. I will go back to the museum to finish seeing the rest of the exhibits in a few weeks when things have quieted down a bit.

It is nice that Doha is actually starting to shape up and have nice things/areas for people to go to. When I first arrived there was not much to do aside from going to a mall. Now there is Souq Waqif (a rebuilt Souq in the old classic style with a lot of restaurants and traditional shops), the Museum, and in the next couple of months the first phase of the Pearl will open (reclaimed land that will have a beautiful boardwalk with restaurants and shops). The W hotel will be opening soon and the Grand Hyatt resort is scheduled to open the first quarter of 2009. Not that I'm too fussed about hotels as they are always really expensive, but the Hyatt will have a Thai restaurant which I'm looking forward to as I have not been that impressed with the Thai food one can find here.

In other news earlier this week the Istisqaa Prayer (prayer for rain) was held. It is an annual ritual that dates back from the time of the Prophet and apparently a Sunnah mentions it. It was the first time I had heard about the Istisqaa Prayer but Qataris take this prayer seriously -- it was led by the Emir himself. Two days later we had a big thunderstorm and a whole heap of rain. You have to be careful what you wish for though, enough rain fell that many of the streets were flooded and there were a lot of car accidents.

I joked with a couple of my Qatari colleagues about the Prayer, asking whether they did any kind of dance akin to Western stereotypes about Native "rain dances", and they laughed and noted that it was simply a set of specific prayers. I learned later that the Prayer is not just about rain, it is a more of a ritual based on repentance as part of the Prayer involves asking Allah for forgiveness for prior sins. Maybe the rain that you pray for represents washing away one's sins? I think that this Prayer may be unique to Arabia as I am not sure how widespread it is throughout the rest of the Islamic world, especially in places where they get lots of rain like Malaysia.

It was also reported that Qatar has now reached a population of 1.5 million. Considering two and half years ago when I arrived the population was just under a million it goes to show just how quickly this country is growing. The paper also reported that in the last month alone 28,000 people arrived, mostly labourers of course. Also of note was that they estimated that out of the 1.5 million people 1.18 million were men, which means that the gender ratio of men to women is close to 4:1, the highest such imbalance in the world. It can be a little unsettling to women at times, especially if you are in neighbourhoods popular with labourers such as the area just outside the Souq Waqif area, as there could literally be hundreds of men on the street and not a single woman to be seen. It also means that women can be subject to a lot of stares and leering. Couple that with strict enforcement against prostitution and "illicit relations" and you have thousands of frustrated men roaming around. I can see why women might be nervous walking around on their own.

As for my knees they are definitely improving now that I am doing proper exercises to strengthen the muscles, which has made me a happier person. One downside though is that I've had to stop swimming in the compound pool because it is just too bloody cold! The pool is unheated so the water is freezing, and the temperatures are starting to drop now so in a week or two it will be too uncomfortable to walk around without a jacket, let alone just wearing a swimsuit. I will have to find some other exercise to keep me busy for the next couple of months.

And finally the second Eid holiday has begun. I'm not sticking around in Qatar for this holiday. I have three days off work and couple that with the weekend and you got the makings of a nice getaway holiday. So I found myself a great deal to . . .

. . . ready . . .

Singapore! I leave tomorrow. Plans are to mostly relax and enjoy the food. A work colleague is from Singapore so he gave me a list of all sorts of great places to eat, as well as a couple of things to do. The Night Safari at the Zoo to see the nocturnal animals is a definite must as everyone who has been to Singapore has told me it is great. A bumboat tour of the river (apparantly there are boats called bumboats there), and a Singapore Sling at the Raffles hotel should be enough activity for a low-key relaxing trip. I'll blog about it when I get back.

Eid Mubarak to all those Muslims reading the blog, enjoy the holiday.

So where are the pictures of the glyphs?

Once again the Compound computers were crashing out, and work computers block picture sites so hopefully this works . . .