Saturday, January 03, 2009

Books and History

Happy New Year everyone!

Well after telling people in Qatar I was going to have a mellow New Year's Eve I got an invitation that day from my friend Serdar to attend a party at his compound. So New Year's Eve was spent with about 40 to 50 people, with a catered buffet dinner and everything. The host provided plastic bags with party favours (hats, blowers etc ) but a number of the bags also had spray cans of Silly String -- you can imagine what a party with 25 cans of Silly String looked like! Here's hoping the compound Club House staff can get all the silly string off the walls and carpeting.

Also in the last week I attended a book fair taking place at the Exhibition Centre with one of my Qatari colleagues. Now Doha does not have a lot in the way of English-language bookstores, in fact I can only think of three, and of those three the best one is the book section of a Virgin Store (not even a Megastore) so that should give you an idea of the level of book selection available. I would kill for a decent bookstore but so far nothing. Rumours surface every now and then that a bookstore chain called MacGrudy's is going to open a store in Qatar but it never seems to happen. Sigh. Anyway I was just going to the fair on a lark to see if there was anything of interest but I was not expecting much. Turns out the book fair had over 200 stalls with publishers from all over the Middle East selling books. Now out of those 200-plus stalls only about 20 had English-language books but it was still enough for me to find some interesting items and I walked out of there with seven books: a two-volume set of Islamic jurisprudence, a small book about astronomy during Islam's "Golden Age", a book that compiled the Arab's views of the Crusades, a book on Moorish Spain, and two books on the GCC that were given to me free from a Qatari gentlemen at a Government bookstall.

As for the rest of the exhibition it was crowded with people so I guess the Arabic-language bookstores do not have a great selection either. My colleague wound up with 4 bags of books, we had to make two separate trips to his truck to drop them all off. Two of the bags were a 12 (maybe 14) volume set of hadiths that he said his family did not have in their library. That is the lot of hadiths.

After the book fair it was off to the bar at the Ramada for Quiz Night. There is a core group of us from work who like to attend this once-a-month event, probably because we never win. (Sidenote: my Qatari colleague just dropped me off and did not join us, so those of you at work reading this don't be spreading rumours he was hanging out at the Shahrazad Bar). We have come in second twice, and third at least twice, but never won. Drives me nuts. First place gets a dinner voucher for 12 people at one of the Ramada's restaurants worth about $600 (!), second place gets a round of drinks, third place gets squat. Considering there is no entry fee for the quiz it is a pretty good deal and an entertaining way to spend an evening. Well the first round was Sports and we got crushed, scoring only 8/20. We pretty much wrote off our chances of winning, but after a decent second round, winning third round, and decent fourth round we suddenly found ourselves in fourth place going into the last round! The category was Entertainment and while I maybe knew about 25% of it one of my colleagues and her brother-in-law were total champs. We wound up scoring 27/29 to take . . .

. . . second place. Aaaaaaargh!!

Now, why am I bothering to mention a Quiz Night at a bar? Well one of the categories that evening was Qatar which I thought was amusing because at the time there were about a dozen drunk Qataris around (this is one of the few bars that serve Qataris) so we joked that maybe we should get one of them on our team so we could totally ace it. Later that night another work colleague who was on another team mentioned that the table next to his were all Qataris and they were terrible at the category! That struck me as a little odd so the next day we asked some of the questions from the quiz to two of our Qatari colleagues:

1) what does the white in the Qatari flag represent? (Peace, one of them knew it)
2) what year was Qatar's independence? (1971, one of them knew it was 71 or 72, the other did not know)
3) average rainfall? (70mm, neither of them knew and their guesses weren't close)

So in our discussion we found out that Qatari history was not taught at school in Qatar, which was why most Qataris would not know the answers to many questions about Qatar. The work colleague who did know some of the answers had actually taken an elective on Qatari history at University, which is how they knew. They agreed that it was kind of odd that local schools did not teach Qatari history but it was their understanding that it has changed now and is now taught in schools. So the younger generation will likely be a better bet for quiz night.

But it turns out that Qatari history is not an easy thing to find a lot of books or materials on. Which brings us right back to the book fair. My colleague was also looking for a book on the history of the Al-Thani family (the ruling family) which apparently was sold out almost everywhere. He eventually did find it and told me there are not many such books on the various tribes and families in the region because a book that showed a powerful family in an unflattering light would never be published and writers have to be careful about what they say. But the history of Qatar, Saudi, Bahrain etc, is chock-full of numerous tribal wars and conflicts and the tribes and families involved still exist today. It therefore becomes difficult to chronicle the battles/wars without there being a "good" side and a "bad" side, and even in a neutral chronicle powerful families do not want to be reminded of past defeats, embarrassments, or unbecoming behaviour (pillaging etc) that may have occurred in those times. So few people are willing to try to publish books describing this history. That is not to say that the history has been forgotten, many Qataris learn about the wars and battles orally through older family members, it just is not written down anywhere. And this was not all that long ago so it likely affects Qatari society today, only more clandestinly. I'm sure it has an impact on the arranged marriages as Qataris from one tribe/family would probably never marry someone from a family where there was a long history of rivalry and conflict.

Maybe I will learn more about this someday. If so I'll let you know.

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