Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ramadan has begun!

It was announced in the papers that it would begin tonight so fasting starts tomorrow. I've got everything prepared, it's just a matter of getting used to waking up at 3 AM to have a meal. Like last year I'll just keep the food and drinks on my nightstand and have it there so I can go straight back to sleep.

First light is at 3:20 in the morning and the sun sets around 18:20 so I'm fasting for 15 hours a day.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Varieties of Dates

I just finished shopping for Ramadan and one of the things I had to buy was dates. In Qatar, as well as most parts of the Islamic world, it is common to break your fast by eating a few dates so I wanted to make sure I had some on hand.

Most people in the West may not realize that, much like other fruits, there are many different varieties of dates. They range in size, color, sweetness, and quality (and of course, price). When I looked around the supermarket I realized there were over 10 different varieties on sale. So I figure I'd pick up a bunch of different types and try them out. Ultimately I've tried seven, including six from the same company. [2016 update: added two more varieties, now it's nine]

Once I got home I had a mini taste-testing to see what the differences were between the varieties.

1) Khudri

Khudri dates are a uniform dark brown color, not too wrinkly (dates can range from smooth to as wrinkly as a prune depending on the variety). The skin of these dates flake a little.

Taste: moderately sweet, nice “date” flavour, chewy but not dry.

2) Sagai

Sagai dates had the lightest color, going from medium brown to a very light brown at the top so had a unique 2-toned colour. They were also moderately wrinkled but the skin didn't flake.

Taste: mild sweetness, a milder date flavor than Khudri, chewy, not dry.

3) Safawi

Safawi are also a dark brown color but are slightly darker in color than Khudri dates. Safawi dates are wrinkly but how wrinkly they were varied greatly from date to date. Slight flaking.

Taste: the sweetness and flavour were slightly more intense than a Khudri date. Chewiness varied with how wrinkled the date was: a more wrinkled date was tougher to chew.

4) Ajwa Al Madinah

Unlike the other varieties of dates these dates are smaller and more spherical, rather than the oval shape we traditionally attribute to dates. They are also a very dark brown, almost black. Slightly wrinkled and the skin didn't flake.

Taste: these dates were very soft and almost melted in your mouth. They were moderately sweet but the taste could best be described as "smooth" compared to the other dates. Despite their smaller size the seed was slightly bigger.

5) Fard

These dates are medium brown color, smooth, with a bit of skin flaking. Seemed a bit more plump compared to the other dates.

Taste: like the Ajwa dates they were soft but unlike Ajwas they were very sweet, easily the sweetest date of the seven. You could almost feel granules of sugar in it. The sweetness also gave it a strong flavour.

6) Mabroom

Slightly smaller and more elongated than Khudri dates, also have a bit lighter color though not as light as Sagai. Wrinkled but they don't flake.

Taste: slightly less sweet than Khudri, a bit harder as well, pleasant flavour that was not as intense as some of the other varieties.

7) Sukkary

Sukkary are light brown in colour with patches of even lighter colour here and there, somewhat like a Sagai but without the distinct colour difference you see in Sagai dates. A bit of flaking.

Taste: not chewy, almost melted as it was quite soft. Like Fard dates I was mostly tasting sugar but it was not as sweet as a Fard date. Very mild date taste, so much so that if I had been given these while blindfolded I'd have a tough time determining it was a date.

8) Majdool

These were recommended by a Qatari friend of mine and are one of his favourites. They're expensive, mostly because they are a rare variety, or at least the Jordanian ones are (which are apparently the best).

The dates were HUGE, easily the biggest of the varieties that I've tried, and probably three times as much 'meat' as an ajwa date.

Taste: I expected them to be as soft and sugary as a Fard date given their size but actually they had a nice soft/firmness balance, a bit softer than a Khudri, and had a slightly stronger date taste and were 'smooth' like an ajwa. They were pretty good and might be what many people (not familiar with dates) would expect a date to be like.

9) Khenaizi

Very dark brown, small to midsize, not very wrinkled and didn't flake. They were soft, though a bit firmer than a Fard date, and had an above-average sweetness. The taste leaned more toward 'sweet' than 'date', but not to the extent of a Fard date. Still pretty good.

So what one did I like the best? I would have to go with the Ajwa Al Madinah because of their softness and smooth flavor/sweetness. Ranking them in order I would go:

Ajwa Al Madinah
Khudri (if you're not too familiar with dates these ones are probably what you think dates would be like)
Majdool (similar to Khudri but three times the price)
Sagai and Mabroom tied
Sukkary (sugar taste, not much date taste)
Safawi (the tougher consistency was a bit annoying)
Fard (way too sweet and a real contrast to the Ajwa)

Not surprisingly the most expensive of the five varieties were also the Ajwas, which cost more than double what you would pay for the other varieties, though the Majdool dates were a close second. The rest were generally around the same price.

[Aug 2014 update: you can find an additional blog post about dates, this time about the stages of ripeness, by clicking this link.]


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ramadan 2011 is Approaching

We have less than a week till Ramadan so I need to start getting ready. I've created a new category for my blog, "Ramadan", and linked the previous year’s blog posts to it because I found Ramadan last year to be really interesting. Yes, I will be fasting again and I've already started preparations, namely weaning myself off of caffeine. I'm now down to 1 cup of coffee a day.

Expectation is that Ramadan will start August 1 but because it is based on sighting the first light on the moon (i.e. right after the New Moon) it is possible it could start one day before or after August 1. I recall that my first year here it started a day earlier than expected, which caused a bit of anguish as colleagues and I were at a bar to have final drinks before the bars are shut for Ramadan. As soon as I got to the bar Ramadan was announced and hotel staff immediately came in with carts to take all the alcohol away so there was no chance for us to get some drinks. Apparently the hotel only has a couple of hours to lock up the booze before the police come to check to see that the bar has been closed.

Anyway in addition to fasting I plan to do other Ramadan activities such as visiting a mosque and maybe attending a reading of the Qur’an.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Trip to a Majlis

This weekend I received an invite from a Qatari friend of mine to hang out with some of his friends at his majlis. A majlis is a sitting area (the verb "ajlis" means “to sit”) and in Qatar it commonly refers to an area at one’s home where men can gather, not unlike a living room or rec room. Because of the strict rules on gender segregation typically a majlis is separate from the house so that visiting men will not meet the women in the household but the term is flexible -- I have a one-bedroom apartment and I recall one of my Qatari friends referring to my living room as my majlis.

This is my second time in a Qatari majlis and unfortunately I don't have pictures of either. This article shows an example. Aside from the more Arabic-style furnishings it is essentially a living room.(actually it's an interesting article to read too)

So we went out to my friend's majlis in a rural area just north of Doha. Well, maybe about five years ago was in a rural area, Doha has grown so much now that it was really on the edge of the city. My friend told me that 15 years ago there was only one neighbor in the area. Anyway, the majlis was a large area, around 800 sq ft., with Arabic-style couches around a TV, a small table for playing card games, as well as a pool table, ping-pong table, foosball table, and a fridge, thus it was more akin to a rec room than a living room. It was myself and seven Qataris.

So what did we do? Played pool, ping-pong, card games (Brasilla and Hand), watched DVDs on the TV, and a few of us went for a swim in my friend's pool. Essentially, we did the same sort of thing that guys hanging out in the West would do, except there was no alcohol of course. We even ordered some take-away food for dinner (in this case Turkish food but there's no reason why it couldn't have been pizza or KFC). A good time was had by all.

So why am I telling you about this? Go back to the first couple of paragraphs, what were you thinking would happen when you read I was going to majlis? Did you think that it would be similar to visiting someone's rec room in North America? I doubt it.

Now you know. Arabs like doing the same things we do in the West. Chilling out and having a good time with your friends.

Well, except for having the occasional break for prayer and not drinking beer. :-)


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dubai and Abu Dhabi

I'm back from my trip to the UAE. Needless to say I was not impressed with the airport in Dubai. The passport lineup took about an hour and given how Dubai always goes on about how modern and advanced it is I expected a lot better. Everyone in the line up was pretty annoyed. On top of that because I'm Canadian I had to sort out my visa. Most Canadians need to get a prearranged visa before they come to the UAE but because I'm resident in the Gulf (and have a certain title on my job permit that matched an "approved" list) I was able to get a visa upon landing. This was a three stage process at the airport and there are no signs or indicators to tell you what to do. Thanks to information desks I figured out where the:
1) office was where I had to fill out a form
2) retinal scan was located (and I had to line up for 30 minutes); and
3) bank was to pay for my visa

All in all I was in the airport over two hours. Good thing my friend didn't come to the airport to pick me up or he would've been waiting forever. I grabbed the Metro down to where my friend lived.

It was my first time taking the Metro, as it had been completed in 2009, and I found it quite good. It made it easy to get around a lot of the city. Qatar needs to hurry up and build one. It also made it easy to see that lots of Dubai is still unfinished and I'm not sure how many of these partially built towers are going to be completed. Real estate is still in big trouble here.

I spent the weekend hanging out with my friend and seeing a couple of sights. Because it is so hot and humid out most of it was indoors, usually visiting malls. I saw the new Dubai Mall and while it is very large I found it rather empty. Not a lot of people shopping and while I have never been someone who is big on malls I found that Dubai Mall didn't have a lot of character. I'll take Souq Waqif in Doha any day! I was at the Mall for about an hour and a half and was thankful to move on and have lunch with my friend somewhere else.

I'm not sure what it is but all the new developments that come up in the Middle East seem so artificial and sterile. Yes, they are nice and luxurious, but they just seem to lack a lot of life or character, “soul” might be a better term. In Dubai I much prefer the old city area around Dubai Creek (Deira and Bur Dubai) than the shiny new neighborhoods and developments. If I ever lived in Dubai I would definitely live in that area, forget about the Marina or the Palm or all those other luxury neighborhoods. Same thing in Doha, I prefer the place I am in now in one of the older neighborhoods than living in shiny West Bay.

I had meetings in Abu Dhabi on Monday so that morning hired a car to take me on the two-hour drive to the city. Abu Dhabi is well laid out and appears to be well planned, far more so than Doha and Dubai. Streets are laid out in a grid, traffic was not too bad, and most surprisingly there was the odd parking space available. Downtown Abu Dhabi is very dense with buildings and yet somehow the parking situation was a lot better than Doha. I'm not sure what the secret is but Doha should find out. Thanks to the planning and density even their downtown core seemed to have a lot of life to it. Abu Dhabi seemed more like a real city.

I had not been to the UAE in over two years and with the exception of the fact that I have friends there would be in no hurry to go back. They're much more interesting places in the area to see, such as Oman.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Off to the UAE

I leave tomorrow morning for the UAE for a few days. Looking back, I haven't been to Dubai in over 2 1/2 years, just as the major property crash was occurring. My understanding is that it hasn't really recovered yet but business is slowly picking up. The Dubai government is still swamped with debt and hundreds of construction projects are unfinished. Still it will be nice to visit some friends and see how things are changed.

I will post when I return.


Saturday, July 09, 2011

Asian vs European Sizes

Went shopping for some shorts today and I just had to take a picture of the tag:

In case you can't read it the tag says:

Size: EUR: L - ASIA: 3XL

Wow, I'm a XXXL in Asian size. *sigh*

So at what point in time did a European large become the same size as XXXL in Asia? Have we in the West been gradually increasing the size label on clothes? Would an ‘XL’ from the 1950s be a size ‘M’ now?

Anyway, what a downer.


Sunday, July 03, 2011


The other day a few of us from the office went across to City Center Mall for lunch. The mall is gearing up to charge for parking, instituting barriers and operating a ticket system, but also put lights over each individual parking space. The light glows green if there is no car underneath it and red if there is a car parked there. It's a handy way to be able to see where the parking spots are, something that can be difficult to come by at the mall.

I was mentioning how much I thought it was a good idea and one of my Qatari friends said it wasn't that useful since there was little difference between the lights so it made it very difficult to tell. That made me pause for a second and I asked, "you don't see much of a difference between the red and green light?”. He said no, they looked similar. That's when it dawned on me.

I asked him, "Do you have red/green colorblindness?"

I'm sure most of you are aware that red/green colorblindness is pretty common in men, affecting anywhere from 1 in 10 to about 1 in 25 depending on ancestry. It's genetic, and is due to a defect on the X chromosome, which means a man inherits it from his mother. For a woman to suffer from colorblindness both parents would have to have the gene and pass it on so it is a lot rarer in women (because women are XX and the defect is recessive only if both X chromosomes have the defect will a woman get colorblindness, men are XY so only one copy of the defective X-chromosome is needed). I've known a few people who have had red/green colorblindness, which is why I think I spotted the issue right away with my friend.

He said he suspected he might be but had never been tested for it. So once we got back to the office I loaded up an Ishihara test from the internet (if you've never done one before I suggest you click on the link). The test shows you coloured circles and in the circles is a number, but if you have certain types of colorblindness you won't see the number and instead see a circle where everything is the same color. It's a pretty simple and ingenious way to test for colorblindness.

So my friend tried it and sure enough he couldn't see a number in most of the circles. He thought it was quite strange when I would tell him, “no, there is a number in it.” We called over some other friends and they took the test and all of them said the same thing. At this point my friend was a little bit shocked, not to find out he was color blind (he suspected that he was and one of his brothers would tell him that he was color blind as well), but that he couldn't see numbers in the circles whereas everyone else could. He told me it was like staring at a blank wall and then having everyone come along and tell you there was some number painted on it, yet no matter how hard you try you can't see anything. I could see how that would be disconcerting, we tend to believe in our vision more than any other sense ("seeing is believing”), which is why eyewitness testimony is considered so highly in court, so we may have a hard time believing that everyone else can see something that you can't (or even worse, you're quite sure you're seeing something but no one else is so they don't believe you). You’d be more inclined to believe it was a joke everyone was trying to pull on you.

So another Qatari told us that many men in his family are also colorblind (he wasn't) and that got me thinking if colorblindness was more prevalent in Qatar than in most other places in the world. The overall population of Gulf Arabs was never very large and they tend to be closely knit, usually marrying within their tribe, which would mean genetic conditions could be more common. Unfortunately a quick search of health websites had no mention of it, and government websites had nothing either. I would be curious though if anyone has any information on this please let me know.

My friend went home and had other members of his family took the Ishihara test. It turns out that one of his brothers is also colorblind, not too surprising since I think it's a 50-50 chance for any of his brothers.

To cheer him up a little I mentioned that there is at least one advantage to red/green colorblindness. A study indicated that certain types of camouflage were less effective against colorblind people since the camouflage was designed for fooling full-color vision. I've even heard that some militaries try to utilize this by having some colorblind individuals in units in the hopes that they might be able to see through any camouflage the enemy will be using. Couldn't find much about it on the Internet but the U.S. Army does accept colorblind individuals, though what jobs you can select are more limited. I don't think you can be a pilot though.