Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Book Fair

Check out this recent article in the newspaper about an upcoming book fair. Figured I would mention it since I had recently posted about why it is difficult to find a detailed history of Qatar.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Back Update

Okay so the MRI results came back, looks like I have a slight degeneration in one of the discs in my lower back. It has a lot less fluid than the other discs, which affects the elasticity, which can cause soreness and pinching. Definitely could see it in the MRI -- all of my discs showed up as black with white in the middle except for the troubled disc which was entirely black. So I'm booked for physiotherapy (starting this week), need to lose weight, and try to avoid sitting for long periods of time, which is more difficult than it sounds since I work in an office. If after a few months there is still no improvements I think I can have fluid injected into the disc, but that sounds a little scary. The degeneration is apparently something that can come with age and also with people who sit for long periods of time. I'm getting old! *sigh*

On the plus side booking physiotherapy was a breeze, go down one floor to the physiotherapy department at the clinic, hand them the referral form, and my first appointment is in a few days (provided the insurance company approves it of course). When it comes to wait times for medical service Qatar beats Canada hands-down.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve Medical

While everyone else is gearing up for Christmas (well, the Westerners and Christians anyway) I decided to do something different -- go to the doctor about my back. The blood work and x-rays were ready so I was to see him.

So another meeting with a doctor, another consultation, and another prescription for medications, my third in eight days. I had to spend a minute to ask the doctor which ones of the old prescriptions do I keep taking and which ones do I stop. Oh, and I have to lose weight. Next appointment is on Sunday.

By the time I got home: my back ached, my tooth ached from that cavity I had filled a few days ago, my Repetitive Strain Injury was acting up a little because I was driving around, traffic was lousy, I'm now on a diet, and because of the cavity I can't eat anything hot or cold for a week, and it was still hot outside. I was miserable.

Then, like those corny old Christmas specials on TV, I received a gift. And thanks to this gift everything started looking better again, my misery vanished, and I was back to my happier self...

... prescription painkillers!

Wow, those things work like a charm! It's amazing how much better you feel about things when you're not in pain and discomfort.

Back to health care. When I first saw the back doctor (a neurosurgeon) he wanted me to undergo some blood tests, x-rays, and an MRI. Did the blood tests and the x-ray immediately thereafter, and made an appointment for the MRI, which would be in three weeks. When I spoke to the doctor today he asked about the MRI and I told them I had made a booking for January 11. He immediately said, "no, no that's too long, go back and tell them to get an earlier appointment, if you pressure them they will do it."

I thought that was strange, I thought three weeks for an MRI was pretty good (in Canada it would be). So I went back to the MRI area and told the clerk at the appointment desk that I had an appointment through January 11 but the doctor would like me to have it earlier. So he did a bit of typing on his computer, then said:

"Okay, comeback at 4:30 this afternoon"

So I had an MRI appointment for the same day! In fact, I just got back from it. (Are you reading this Health Canada!?) That's why my next appointment with the doctor is Sunday, to discuss my MRI results.

Now I do not want anyone to worry that I will be spending Christmas sitting in some corner alone in the dark. I'm visiting friends tomorrow morning, and going to another friend's place for Christmas dinner. I have also booked my plane tickets for Canada so in about five weeks time I will be with my family having our usual late-Christmas. And thanks to prescription painkillers I should enjoy it all, even though I will not be eating as much as I would have liked.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Warranty Has Expired

These past few days has seen me go to one doctor for a problem with my back (doctor suspects it is a joint inflammation between the spine and the hip, test results come back Thursday), and to the dentist to get a deep cavity filled (this was why I needed to get my wisdom teeth out the cavity was between a tooth and an impacted wisdom tooth).

I swear my mother must have a certificate that was given to her when I was born stating that I have a 38-year warranty because, man, am I falling apart! I've been under general anaesthetic three times in the last year and have had two other medical problems besides. Almost everything has been resolved so if this back inflammation can get sorted out then I have to worry about is my repetitive strain injury.

I hope 2010 is way better medical-wise.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

National Day

Qatar's National Day was the 18th. They used to celebrate Independence Day (in this case independence from British oversight in 1971) on September 3 but a couple of years ago it was decided to instead celebrate when the Al-Thani family became the rulers of Qatar, so celebrating on September 3 was shelved in favour of December 18. From a weather point of view an excellent decision, the temperature is still in the mid-40s in early September which makes outdoor celebrations difficult.

Offhand I do not have the history of the Royal family handy but I believe that the current ruler is the fifth or sixth of the Al-Thani rulers, so the Al-Thanis have ruled the country for about a century.

Getting a detailed history of the area is quite challenging, as far as I can tell there are no history books in English giving more than a brief overview of Qatar's history. From discussions with my Qatari colleagues there are not many in Arabic as well. The reason seem to involve internal politics.

If you look at the history of Qatar, as was the history of other countries in the region, it was dominated by the interactions between the various families (though in English it would be considered more like clans instead of families since these families can have thousands of members). Families would control certain areas, possibly raid others, form alliances, engage in wars, flee to other areas if overrun etc. The history of these interactions and conflicts were rarely written down but instead kept in oral tradition, handed down from generation to generation. I've had the occasional snippet of this history, that the town of Al-Khor used to be under the control of a coalition of seven small families, or that one clan had been chased out of Qatar and had moved to what is now Bahrain, but for the most part I have no idea about what happened here. I'm sure a detailed history would be interesting. So why isn't there one?

Because all of the families are still around.

Histories are full of victors and losers, heroes and villains, joy and sorrow. So if a detailed history of Qatar were to be written who would be the bad guys? You can bet that none of the families are going to accept a history book that portrays them in a bad light, and I'm willing to bet that the oral histories very differently from family to family. What one family may consider a righteous victory another might consider an unjustified massacre. One family "reclaiming their land" would be considered "taking our land" by another family. And who would be right? That is what makes writing down the detailed history of the region so difficult. And I'm guessing that is why you do not see any books on it, it would be a sure way to just ruffle a lot of feathers.

This creates some confusion even amongst Qataris learning their history. One mentioned to me that he took a course in school and later took a history course while in Bahrain and what was taught there was very different from what was taught in Qatar, which also differed from what older members of the family would tell him about certain events. It would be difficult to tell who was right in the end.

Anyway, happy National Day Qatar. I hope that a comprehensive history book can come out one day.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Myths about Muslims, part 2

okay, let's continue with the "misconceptions about Muslims"

4) myth: all Muslims memorise the Qur'an
the Qur'an says [. . . .] so all Muslims follow it to the letter

I have lumped these two together because they both stem from a misconception regarding how much Muslims adhere to the Scripture. We in the West are fully aware that Christians do not follow every single item in the Bible to a "T", and that there is wide variance as to what aspects of the Bible individuals follow or how they interpret it. Yet for some reason we are not willing to apply that same standard to Muslims, if the Qur'an has a passage about something people conclude that all Muslims follow it exactly the same.

For example I have been to a few international seminars in Europe in which some of the attendees are Muslims. Inevitably when we go out to dinner one or two of them has wine or beer with their meal. Someone usually whispers to me "I thought Muslims couldn't drink alcohol", and my response is always "And Christians are supposed to be virgins until they are married.". They usually get the hint. When it comes to how adamantly people follow the scriptures with Islam, like Christianity, the actual application may vary from person to person, and even from culture to culture (see item 1 from my previous blog post).

This ties in with the myth that all Muslims memorise the Qur'an, which I think mostly derives from all of those news reports showing young boys in madrasas rocking back and forth while reciting the Qur'an. Now don't get me wrong, many Muslims try to memorise the Qur'an, or at least parts of it, but "many" is not "all" and a lot don't memorise it (I daresay most do not memorise it but I do not have exact figures). I do not know anyone who has memorised it. I have even asked a couple of people and the response is usually something like "oh that is something fundamentalists or imams do".

Now during Ramadan one of the requirements is for a Muslim to either read the entire Qur'an or listen to someone else recite it (many mosques hold special readings during Ramadan at a set time for this purpose so if you show up every evening you will ultimately listen to the entire Scripture being read). Again not everyone does this, but how necessary would it be if everyone had memorised it already? Don't forget that historically a lot of people were illiterate, which would have made memorisation even more difficult.

And I have found that some Muslims are unaware of some of the passages in Scripture, just like most Christians. For example when I was in Turkey I was at a bar chatting with another traveller about the differences between Turkey and Qatar. He had joked that because of the wealth in Qatar maybe he should find a Qatari woman to marry and I mentioned that in Islam a Muslim woman could only marry a Muslim man, although the reverse was not true as a Muslim man could marry a Christian or Jewish woman. He wondered if the same would apply in Turkey so we called over the bartender (a Turk) and asked if a Turkish Muslim woman could marry a Christian or Jewish man. He shrugged and said "why not?". I guess he didn't know that the Qur'an says she can't (sura 2:221). My Turkish friend was also not aware it was in the Qur'an.

One could argue that maybe Turks don't memorise Scripture because they are "liberal" compared to other Muslim societies but I have found the same in Qatar.

Because I'm interested in different cultures I sometimes have discussions with my Qatari friends about Islam, or why they do the things they do -- whether it is cultural or Scriptural, or chat about specific hadiths, and there is the rare time that I remember something I read in the Scripture or the hadiths that they had forgotten (not drinking from silver cups is one). It is rare, believe me, but it has happened. When we chat further about it the conclusion is usually that the requirements are already ingrained into the culture so it is followed without people sometimes realising its source. My Qatari friends do not wear gold because they knew that it was considered to be for women only and it was unacceptable for Qatari men to wear it. At least one didn't realise it is actually from a hadith, and a Pakistani colleague of mine did not realise it either. I have also met one Muslim here who needed to look up the dietary restrictions because he was unsure about a specific food but couldn't remember all of the restrictions in the Qur'an. So no, all Muslims do not memorise Scripture.

5) myth: all Muslims hate [insert foreigners/Westerners/Jews/whatever]

Another misconception created by the squeaky wheel getting the news coverage. Yes, Islamic terrorists have issues against either the US, Israel, or sometimes just generally the West. Yes, many people attend rallies where flags are burned. Yes, someone threw shoes at Bush. But there are over one billion Muslims in this world and unfortunately "a bunch of Muslims met in Kuala Lumpur and had peaceful discussions about Government farm subsidies" will never appear on CNN.

In the West there are always discussions about immigrants and whether they fit in and whether they are eroding local "culture". It seems to be a topic that never goes away.

Well in Qatar local citizens make up maybe 20% of the total population, probably less. 20%!! And it is not like it has always been this way, Qatar's population has grown so quickly from migration that as little as 8-10 years ago local citizens were in the majority. If such a change were to happen in a Western country there would be citizens rioting in the streets! But in the almost 4 years that I have been here I have never had anyone tell me to "go home", or go back where I came from, or said some anti-Western insult. I have seen a couple of times such sentiment expressed in opinion columns in the newspapers but most locals laugh at the thought of getting rid of the foreigners. Young Qataris have more ambitious plans than to become waiters, store clerks and taxi drivers, and the country's wealth allows them to set their expectations high. The country realises that it needs foreigners to fill most of the jobs, especially the lower paying ones, so the citizens were willing to become a minority in their own country. And no, most of these foreigners are not Muslims, there are thousands of Hindus from India, Christians from the Philippines, and Westerners of whatever religious belief. Many Gulf countries are like this. This would seem at odds with Western perceptions that Muslims hate foreigners or Westerners. The region does have issues with Israel but whether they have issues with Jews per se depends on the individual -- many Muslims realise that Israel is not all of Judaism, and all of Judaism is not Israel. Unfortunately some do think this way, which is no different in prejudice to people who think all Muslims are all the same.

and finally:

6) myth: all Muslims are Arabs, all Arabs are Muslims, all Muslims speak Arabic

Many in the West use "Arab" interchangeably with "Muslim" but the two are not synonymous. Indonesians certainly are not Arabs, Chinese Uighars would never consider themselves Arab, and neither would Turks. In fact most Muslims in the world are not Arabs, the exact percentage would depend on which countries you consider "Arab", but Arabs would form the minority in any event.

As for all Arabs being Muslims one has to remember that countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt have always had significant Christian populations. In Jordan something like 15% of the population of Christian and I believe the number is even higher in Lebanon. When I vacationed in Egypt our guide was a Coptic Christian named Michael. So yes, the majority of Arabs are Muslims but it is incorrect to assume that all Arabs are.

As for Arabic it is widespread in certain parts of the Islamic world but is not spoken in others. Starting from Morocco and going east across North Africa all of those countries speak Arabic, as do the countries in the Arabian Peninsula, but once you reach Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq use of Arabic declines. North of them is Turkey, and despite the population being Muslim for over a thousand years they speak Turkish, not Arabic. East of those countries is Iran, which has always kept its Persian languages such as Farsi, Pakistanis predominantly speak Urdu, Afghanis have a wide range of languages such as Pushtan, and of course Malaysians and Indonesians have their own languages. Individuals will study Arabic as part of reading the Qur'an in its original language, but the vast majority are not fluent in it.

I could go on about Arabic for a while, even within the various countries that speak Arabic the dialects can be so different that it can be a challenge for one Arabic speaker to understand an Arabic speaker from another country. And the Arabic used in the Qur'an is different from the modern Arabic used today. I've had posts about this in the past so search my blog if you want more details.

Okay, rant over. I think Switzerland made a big mistake with their referendum, and I believe that much of their fear or annoyance with Islam is based on a lack of understanding.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Turkey, and Swiss minarets

A couple of weeks ago was the craziest week of work I have had in years, I had to put in so much overtime it prevented me from updating my blog and informing everyone that for the upcoming Eid holiday I went to Turkey for a few days. My friend Serdar was there with his son and it was really great to meet up with them and do a few things off the beaten track in Istanbul.

I was staying in a nice boutique hotel in Sultanahmet which had an amazing rooftop restaurant/bar with a view of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. And ironically, while looking these amazing buildings, it was there that I heard about the decision by the people of Switzerland to ban further building of minarets.

Not tall buildings, not structures that the belong to religious institutions, just minarets. Why? Well because they represent Islam of course.

I find the decision truly sad. It is discrimination against a specific religious group, no more, no less. I find it somewhat inexplicable but take comfort that I cannot fathom such a thing happening in Canada. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is all too clear and the Supreme Court of Canada would throw out such a law on its butt.

Reading further it appears that Switzerland has a law that as long as a certain number of citizens (100,000?) signs a petition on a particular issue that it has to go to a referendum. A politician in Canada suggested implementing something like that once, and a comedy troupe quickly showed why that is a ridiculous idea. I guess Switzerland didn't see the show.

On the JREF forum there was a thread about it, and it surprised me the number of bigoted or ignorant comments that came forth on the issue from some people, though in defence of the posters most of them agreed that the Swiss decision was little more than discrimination and were quick to jump on the bigoted arguments. A Jewish contributor also pointed out the eerie parallels between what was happening now and the types of laws that were happening 70 or 80 years ago against Jews. I'm not sure he even needs to go back that far, any anti-Semitic conspiracy theories around the internet use similar scare tactics to try to paint Judaism negatively.

I did learn something though reading many of the comments -- many people in the West know little to nothing about Islam or the Islamic world, and it leads to a lot of misconceptions and prejudice. I'm not saying that the Islamic world is some kind of utopian paradise, but how will the real issues be addressed when they have to spend their time facing criticism on issues that for the most part are just based on misconceptions?

So, let me take a moment to lay on the table a number of items that seems to be commonly understood in the West -- but is plain wrong.

1) myth: Islam is a one-dimensional monolithic entity

Islam, like Christianity, is split into various sects and factions. Sunni and Shi'a are the ones that people are familiar with but even within those there are many different types, much like "Protestant" encompasses a large number of different groups in Christianity. There are Sufis, Wahhabists, Ismailis (that's the group headed by the Aga Khan) and so on. All are different, and even within those groups people practise their religion differently -- some are fundamentalist, some are moderate, and many do not go to the mosque much and like wine with their dinner. No different than Christianity. Or Judaism for that matter.

Remember, over two dozen countries have a majority Muslim population -- ranging from Morocco all the way to Indonesia, and the societies between these countries can vary dramatically. Turkey is very different from Saudi Arabia, which is different from Oman, which is different from Egypt, which is nothing like Malaysia, which is different from Pakistan and so on. I get tired of seeing statements about Islam or Muslims that implies that they all act the same, dress the same way, are all in agreement about how to deal with the West, and so forth.

I have been fortunate to travel in many Muslim countries in the last few years and can tell you the assumption that people in one Muslim country are the same as in another makes about as much sense as assuming that Peruvians and Italians are the same because they are both from Catholic countries.

2) myth: Muslims want to impose sharia law on everybody

First of all, which sharia law would that be? See item one above. Even in countries that do have sharia law it is imposed differently from country to country. No alcohol allowed in Saudi Arabia but I can get a drink in Qatar, and I've seen many Omanis in dishdasha at the bars in Muscat. A Muslim man approaching women he doesn't know and asking them out could get him in trouble in Qatar -- and maybe get him a date in Lebanon. Does anyone think Egyptian law is the same as Taliban Afghanistan? (If you do you need to travel more.)

Oh wait, is Lebanon under sharia law? Iraq? Malaysia? Azerbaijan? I know Turkey isn't. Hey, I think there might be countries, where the majority of the population is Muslim, who themselves don't impose sharia law! So why the myth that Muslims want to impose sharia on everybody?

Because most of the Muslims you hear about on the TV news or read in the newspapers are the fundamentalists who like sharia law. A Muslim group asking for a sharia law to be applied in family court in the UK gets headlines, 90+ percent of Muslims accepting UK family law does not get headlines. Taliban madrasas get airtime, Turkish women going to university to become lawyers do not. What is shown to people tends to bias them.

3) myth: all Muslim women are dressed head-to-toe in black with veils (or in burkas)

Boy people in the West love those Saudi women dressed head-to-toe in black abayas with veils. Anytime someone wants to portray Muslims in a bad light out come the photos of women in abayas, though Afghani women in burkas have become fashionable in the last few years as well.

Has anyone seen TV news reports about the Swiss vote? Hopefully it showed that wonderful campaign poster of minarets sticking out of the Swiss flag looking like missiles while in the foreground there is a woman in an abaya and veil. What the heck!?

Abayas are commonly worn by women in the Arabian Peninsula but it is only mandatory in Saudi Arabia, in other countries in the Gulf such as Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait it is not mandatory, and many local women do not wear veils. Non-local women, even if they are Muslim, are not required to wear abayas in Qatar. None of the Qatari ladies who work in my office wear veils, and I know a Bahraini woman in Qatar who does not even cover her hair. No one cares.

The Swiss poster seems to imply that Muslim women wear abayas, but if most abaya-wearing women are from Saudi Arabia does that mean most of the Muslims in Switzerland are originally from Saudi Arabia? I doubt it. In fact, if that JREF thread is on the mark, most Swiss Muslims are from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. Countries where women don't wear abayas. Heck, in Turkey a lot of them don't even wear headscarves.

Someone can feel free to correct me but here are the countries where you will commonly find local women with their faces covered:

Saudi Arabia
maybe the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain. (Iraq?)

I think that's it. No, not Iran, they do have a dress code for women but it does not include veils.

Well that does not actually represent a lot of people. Turkey, Egypt and Indonesia each have populations as big or larger than the entire list combined, yet no one seems to pull out pictures of Indonesian women when talking of Islam. If many Swiss Muslims are from Bosnia why didn't the Swiss poster show a European woman in a floral headscarf with no veil?


In summary, Muslim women with their faces covered represent a minority of the Islamic population, and even fewer of them where those black abayas we in the West are so fond of.

Man this is getting long and I still have a few more points to make! I think I will stop it here and continue in my next blog post.