Thursday, May 31, 2012

City Centre Mall

I work in West Bay close to the City Centre Mall and since I didn't have anything pressing to do this evening I decided to go over there after work to see how crowded it would be given that the most popular mall (Villaggio) is now closed. There's only three major malls in Qatar so the closure of one is likely to make the crowds even worse at the others. Not that any of them were suffering for business, City Centre was always notorious for not having enough parking on the weekends. I figured I may as well get an idea of how crowded it's going to be for the next few months so I'm not tempted some weekend evening to go there.

Turns out that while it was crowded, wandering around at 8:00pm I didn't think it was any more crowded than usual. The traffic outside wasn't any worse than usual. The number of people in the mall hadn't significantly increased. Guess people found something else to do.

As I was leaving I noticed that the Traffic Police were wandering around taking photos of any illegally parked cars to issue them tickets, including across the street from the mall and around the nearby skyscrapers. I know the parking situation there is terrible but don't park on the sidewalks people!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tragedy in Doha -- What Next?

As I stood at the vigil thinking about the tragedy I couldn't help but recall what I said about the mall last weekend:

Friday there was a dust storm so no wandering around outdoors. I did some errands and then decided for exercise to wander around Villaggio Mall. I know, I know, Villaggio Mall on a weekend night is a nightmare of crowds and no parking. Not sure what I was thinking, maybe because it was five o'clock I figured I would get there before most of the crowd. Wrong!

The Villaggio fire was an awful, terrible tragedy -- but it also could have been even worse. Had it been the weekend, or later in the day when the amusement park would have been operating, it’s possible that dozens could have died.

A couple of months ago there was an electrical fire at City Centre Mall that even now has kept one of its food courts closed. Today there have been reports of two small fires at some schools. What next? Do we wait until there is a fire at a 40-storey skyscraper in West Bay!? Or at a hotel? Or a hospital?

His Highness the Emir has ordered an investigation into the Villaggio fire and wants a report within a week. It is my sincerest hope that the report looks beyond the direct causes or issues to uncover the broader problems. It is not enough to just conclude that fire alarms or some wiring or sprinkler systems or whatever didn’t work. How did it get that way? Why did mall management or government inspectors not spot the problems? If the fire was caused by wiring what expertise did the people have who installed it? Were any laws circumvented? Who gave approval for a nursery that apparently didn't have an independent emergency exit?

And how much do these same issues affect every other building here?

I do have faith that His Highness will enact significant changes. Some people in Qatar may scoff, noting their belief about how Qataris with influence and power don't have to follow the rules, but I honestly do not think that is usually the case. The inspectors who review grocery stores and restaurants have temporarily shut down offenders, including sections of large supermarkets. You can't tell me that a supermarket does not have a powerful and influential Qatari owner, yet the inspectors will close it all the same. That same determination can be brought to bear to deal with whatever issues the Villaggio report uncovers.

Something does need to change. If it doesn't I fear I will be attending another vigil someday.

Vigil for the victims of the Villaggio Fire

I was at the vigil today at Aspire Park.

For updates about the fire and the aftermath I recommend following if you aren't already.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Tragedy at Villaggio

Man, is it ever tragic. One day I'm blogging about the crazy crowds at Villaggio Mall and the next there was a huge fire at the mall.

A spokesman for the Government announced at a news conference tonight that the fire started near the nursery in the center of the mall. 19 people are confirmed dead so far -- including 13 children!

A number of vigils and church services will be held tomorrow. I will going to one of them.

I don't know what else I can say. :(

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Weekend in Doha

This weekend I got up to a bunch of little things here and there. I decided to check out the Cityscape-Doha exhibition to see what was up and coming in the world the Doha construction. Cityscape is a construction/developer exhibition that takes place in major Arabian cities throughout the year (I think Cityscape Dubai is the biggest one).

I went hoping to see proposals for new projects but instead saw projects that I knew about and that were already under construction: Barwa City, Al Waab City(pic 1), the Pearl, Doha Festival City(pic 2), and the Al Gharaffa Mall(pic 3).

Nothing really new, there wasn't even a display on the Lusail project or the Metro. A bit disappointing. There were of course other developers selling property in other countries like Oman, the UK, or Jordan but I didn't stop to look at any of those.

Since I wasn't there as long as I thought I would be I went from Cityscape to nearby Katara to have a quick wander around and see how it was coming along.

I walked along the shore and around the nearby buildings and happened to wander by a photography exhibition so I popped in to take a look. There were some fantastic photos of the Hajj pilgrimage that I really liked. Afterwards I stopped for a chapatti and karak before heading home.

Friday there was a dust storm so no wandering around outdoors. I did some errands and then decided for exercise to wander around Villagio Mall. I know, I know, Villagio Mall on a weekend night is a nightmare of crowds and no parking. Not sure what I was thinking, maybe because it was five o'clock I figured I would get there before most of the crowd. Wrong! Luckily just as I got in the parking lot a car left so I got a parking spot right away. I did three laps of the mall and had a coffee, as well as a low-cal dinner, before heading back.

I don't know what I'm going to do for exercise in the summer. Walking on a treadmill is really boring but trying to get to a mall is a real pain now. Qatar's population has almost doubled since I arrived here six years ago so parking is a nightmare and the malls are always heaving with people.

Saturday I wandered around trying to find a battery for my camera. Thanks to directions from a guy working the from the camera section of the department store I finally found the service center only to find it was closed for the weekend. It wasn't a total loss because my favorite breakfast place, J&G Sandwich Cellar, wasn't too far away so I went there for poached eggs on toast. Read in the newspaper there was Saluki racing the other day. Wish I'd known about that beforehand -- I'd have definitely gone.

Met up with a couple of buddies later and spent the evening at Souq Waqif. I'm pretty much a regular there now. Some of the waiters who stand out in front of the restaurants wave to me as I walk by.

Unfortunately it's so hot out now so it becomes a bit draining to wander around. Guess it'll be like this for the next five months so just got to put up with it.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Qatari Etiquette – random encounters

As you know Arab culture tends to segregate men and women, especially in the Arabian Peninsula. I have a few Qatari friends who are married and to date I have never seen their wives, not even a picture of them. In Qatari culture men simply do not try to interact with ladies (except relatives and spouses of course) and it is considered a bit impolite for a man to even ask about someone's wife. I've always known this so I’ve never been bothered about it.

The other day some of us were out at lunch. We were talking about summer and how everyone would be going to the malls to escape the heat and I realized that there would be a good chance I would randomly encounter my friends with their families at the mall.

So I asked, what is acceptable practice when by chance I see you at the mall and you are with your wife?

Responses were mixed but all agreed you leave them alone -- never go up to the guy and say “hi” like you would in the West.

The disagreement came in whether you even briefly wave “hi” or give some other kind of acknowledgment as you pass. Some said that would be okay but others said don't even do that! Just ignore them and walk on.

One Qatari told me about a time he saw a friend at a mall and went up to say hi, not realizing that the man's wife was a bit further down the aisle. As soon as he noticed he immediately said goodbye and left. I think the conversation went something like this, “Hi, how are you doing .... well, see you later.” Going up to chat with a friend of yours when he is with his wife is a faux pas in Qatari society.

Besides, as someone pointed out, nowadays with phone technology you can just send a text rather than acknowledging him. He can send a text back later if he wishes. Fair enough I suppose.

[May 31 update: I spoke to two Qatari ladies who work in the office and it turns out that the rule only applies to men. If you're a woman and at the mall and you see a Qatari lady you know with her husband it's fine for you to go up and say hi to her.]

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Brief History of Qur'an Calligraphy

On Wednesday I attended a lecture at the Museum of Islamic Art on calligraphy in early Qur’ans. It turned out to be very good lecture and enlightened me as to the background of some of the calligraphic styles in the Qur'an pages on display in the Museum.

In order to share it with you I decided on Friday to go to the Museum to take some photos of the exhibits for this blog post -- it won't make much sense without pictures!

The earliest writings were a hajiri script, essentially handwriting:

This was followed shortly thereafter by a formalized style, a block text called “kufic”.

Kufic represented the first Qur’an calligraphy to start to have a formalized artistic style, where the writing became art in-and-of itself. Kufic would dominate the calligraphy of the Qur’an for the next 300 years, becoming more and more artistic, to the point where in some cases a page would only contain about a dozen or so words.

This made for some very big Qur’ans. Which meant reading them became more difficult. The largest of these Qur'ans was in Samarkand. Check out the size of the stone lecturn:

Anyway, compare kufic with the style typically used in a modern Qur’an:

Does something seem to be missing in the kufic text? A lot of dots and slash marks and little symbols around the words.

Apparently in kufic script the scribes only used the dots if it would be ambiguous what letter it was, if it was clear from the sentence what word it must be than they did not bother putting dots with the letters. This must've been confusing, for example the difference between the letters ‘h’, ‘j’ and ‘kh’ is whether there is a dot and its position (if there is no dot then it's an ‘h’)

The other slashes and symbols are used to indicate the short vowels, but writing out those vowels was not used until later. The speaker said it developed around the 10th century during the Abbassid Caliphate but another wiki article says it occurred earlier, with the development of the first Arabic dictionary.

Kufic was likely used in the first Qur’ans but it is difficult to determine. The Prophet Mohammed died in 632 A.D. and the first “official” Qur’ans, the Uthman Qur’ans, were compiled by the third caliph Uthman during his reign from 644-656 A.D. and copies were distributed to major cities throughout the Islamic empire. There's some debate as to whether any of the original Uthman Qur’ans survive. The oldest Qur’ans are believed to be the Topkapi Qur’an and the Samarkand Qur’an. Both claim to be from the original compilation of Uthman, and are in kufic script, but there is some debate as to whether or not they were written shortly afterward. Unfortunately Caliph Uthman ordered all previous writings of the Qur’an destroyed (so that there would be no textual conflicts with the one he compiled), and carbon dating will give an error of +/- 30 to 40 years, so there is no easy way to determine if kufic was definitely used in the first Uthman Qur’ans.

It is known that a large kufic inscription was included in the Dome of the Rock, which was built from 688-691 A.D., so kufic was definitely used before that.

But then in the 10th century Abbasids decided to use a script called Muhaqqaq, which quickly became the standard in the East

As you can see it has curve and flow to it similar to modern Arabic. Calligraphy quickly moved away from the “blockiness” of kufic into calligraphy styles with flowing lines. From there other styles developed:


Maghribi, used in Morocco and Spain by the Ummayyeds

Eventually developing into a more modern style, such as from this 17th century Chinese Qur’an:

I believe that over the centuries there have been over a dozen different styles of Qur’an calligraphy, though the lecture mostly touched on the earliest.

All-in-all one of the more interesting lectures I’d been to at the Museum.

[July 2013 update: I went to another museum exhibit on Qur'an Calligraphy, click here to read more.]

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Strange Ad

I was flipping through the local paper this morning and spotted this ad in the classifieds:

A Businessman is in need of a Russian or Ukrainian Female Secretary or Personal Assistant, 25 to 33 years old. Fluent in English, willing to be based in Malaysia and travel in different Asian countries. Send your resume with photo to: . . . . .

Must be female, late 20s, and provide a photo with your resume? *shakes head* Could you even get away with an ad like this in North America anymore?

Maybe I'm being too Politically Correct.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Immigration Policy and Economic Migration

As most of you know Qatar has a strict immigration policy. Only citizens from a few countries, such as the GCC, can enter Qatar without a visa. And citizens of another 33 countries (pretty much the Western nations), can get a tourist visa on arrival. Everyone else needs to apply for a visa in advance and to get a work-visa/residence-permit you have to be sponsored by an employer. For a married couple the family can be sponsored by the person who has the residence permit but only if they earn above a certain level of income every month (I think QAR 10000 but I'm not 100% on that). If you lose your residence permit because you’ve lost your job you and everyone you're sponsoring have to leave the country. Also, there is pretty much no chance you'll ever become a citizen, no matter how long you've lived here.

It seems pretty strict but I'm not sure what choice Qatar has. It has the highest GDP per capita in the world and is close to India, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq and a number of other countries with large populations and issues with poverty. If Qatar wasn't so strict then hundreds of thousands of economic migrants would flood the country.

This got me thinking about poverty in other parts of the world and the rationales people come up with to explain it. Everyone points to Africa wondering why it continues to be mired in poverty despite its natural resources and aid from other countries. Similar things tend to be discussed about Central and South America, and some parts of Asia. People mention things like the possible after-effects of colonialism, or whether it's due to "cultural differences" compared to more successful countries, and a smattering of others have more racist views (“those” people will always have problems, they tend not to work hard, etc.). I remember an article a long time ago that pointed out that in the 1950s Kenya had a higher GDP per capita than South Korea, and now people ask why South Korea went on to be more successful than Kenya, implying cultural differences or work ethic may have been the key factor.

So when I looked at the countries we see as successful (i.e. “the West”, even though countries like Japan and South Korea are usually placed in this group) I noticed a trend that may also help explain part of their success -- isolation from massive economic migration when they were developing.

Part of the problem with aid to poor nations is that population growth and economic migration might swamp the initial benefit, essentially a macro version of "tragedy of the commons”. For example (on a small scale), if an aid group builds a well for a village of 500 people, but other nearby villages don't have clean water, then it is likely that people from the outlying villages, or migrants from farther away going to the area, will stay at the village with the well instead of the other villages. In a short period of time a well for 500 people might now be used by thousands of people. 10 years after the well was dug there is another appeal from the aid group for money to dig more wells because there's not enough clean water supplied by the first well for everyone. The initial improvement gained by the original 500 villagers is now depleted by the increase in people and so everyone is no better off than they were before.

On a macro-scale when a nation starts to become more prosperous it becomes a magnet for those who are less fortunate, who migrate to the country to try to improve their lives. We see this all the time now as illegal immigrants try to access Europe and North America. But when the “developed” nations were starting to grow and prosper it happened to coincide with circumstances that blocked being swamped by economic migration:

United States [early 20th century] – only one border for land migration by illegal immigrants (Mexico), a level of geographic isolation because of the desert between Mexico and the US, and the US was easily vast enough to absorb the migrants that did come.

Canada [anytime] -- surrounded by the United States, easier to reach the US and illegal migrants stopped in the US once they got there.

Australia and New Zealand [early 20th century] -- geographically isolated so difficult to reach

Japan [late 20th century] -- unique language, neighboring countries had tightly controlled borders preventing people from leaving (China, North Korea, Russia)

South Korea [late 20th century] -- neighboring countries had tightly controlled borders preventing people from leaving (China, North Korea, Russia)

South Africa [20th century] -- strict controls against economic migrants (the apartheid system)

Europe [19th century] -- fast modes of transportation from non-European countries had not really been developed. Prejudice against non-whites and geographically a challenge for an economic migrant to reach a country where he knows the language (if you think about it, with perhaps the exceptions of Algeria/Tunisia, countries in Africa close to Europe don't speak the language of the European country at the other side of the Mediterranean. England would've been too far for someone in Africa trekking by land.) The Sahara Desert also prevented a lot of migration.

Even within Europe I think language and cultural differences prevented a lot of cross-country migration. While the educated elite may have traveled around a lot I don't think poor farmers in Prussia were emigrating in droves to Paris or London, or thousands of Danes were sneaking into Italy for work.

Europe [post WWII] -- the Iron Curtain prevented migrants reaching Western Europe, with the exception of Africans, and for Africans the issues of prejudice, language and the Sahara Desert were still there (again I think Algeria/Tunisia were exceptions but France was large enough to absorb migration from there).

Hong Kong [20th century] – only one neighboring country, which had tightly controlled borders preventing people from leaving (China).

Now compare that to other countries that maybe 50 or 60 years ago had been highly regarded as eventually becoming wealthy, such as Kenya, Ivory Coast or Argentina. Easier to reach geographically for migrants and in many cases little to no challenge with language. Millions of economic migrants could pour into these countries the moment these countries started to be prosperous, causing a macro-scale tragedy of the commons and impeding the development (though it was less so with Argentina, perhaps due to its size and being on the southern edge of the continent). This will make it difficult for countries in these areas to be able to develop and improve without getting swamped by migrants seeking a better life as well. If Columbia opens a new mine, thousands of Peruvians will probably head over looking for work. Nigeria has lots of oil -- but also more than 100 million people, including lots of migration from nearby countries. Bolivians continue to go into Argentina and Brazil for work, and if things settle in South Sudan how long before people from Ethiopia or Chad head in to find opportunity amongst the oilfields? How many would head to Qatar if they could?

Now I find some aspects of this hypothesis disturbing as it would be supportive of a country implementing very strict border controls and immigration laws in order to allow the country to grow economically. Would South Africa have maintained its level of prosperity without the apartheid regime? Could Western Europe have maintained growth without the protection of the Iron Curtain? What if it'd been easier in the early 20th century for people in Central America to reach the US? It's an interesting thought experiment. I don't think Qatar has any choice but to continue with its strict policy.

Now strict immigration laws or border controls are of course not the only factor to becoming “developed” but I definitely see some correlation. It would be interesting to see how extensively this has been studied by sociologists or other academics.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Marriage tips from FANAR

So I received this text that FANAR was having a lecture Thursday night on “How to Be Happily Married”. I figured it would be interesting enough and since FANAR is close to Souq Waqif it will be easy to make an evening of it. My friend Murat decided to come along, he is a married Muslim so figured it might be of interest to him as well. We went to the souq and had dinner at Damasca before moseying over to the lecture.

The lecture took place in the main auditorium and there was around 100 men there (ladies sat on the level above so I've no idea how many were there). The speaker was a petroleum engineer for one of the oil companies who in his spare time gives lectures on Islamic topics or holds classes on Islam for children. He was not an Islamic scholar though, which became a bit of a problem during the Q&A as he could not provide comments on matters of religious fatwas, those can only be given by an imam.

Anyway I found out that this was first in a series of four lectures, spending 45 minutes on the types of things one should look for in a marriage partner. Not surprisingly Islamic devoutness was a key consideration and was the focus of much of the discussion.

During the Q&A one lady had a question about whether a man could have a secret second marriage (i.e. marry a second wife but not tell the first one). The speaker was unable to give a response on this as it was more an issue of fatwa but two people in the crowd had their opinion and so when it was their turn to ask a question instead tried to answer the lady’s question. Both believed the answer was no, you can't keep that secret. One even said that you need the permission of the first wife to marry again but something in the back of my mind was telling me that's not correct. A bit of Googling later and the general consensus is that you do not need her permission to marry again:

I also found a video by a scholar I met previously, Dr. Zakir Naik, who states that while it would be preferable permission from the first wife is not a requirement, however informing the first wife is a requirement. (For my meeting with Dr. Naik: Part 1, Part 2)

Finally, there was a question from a Qatari gentleman about how one should assess someone's devoutness to Islam. Apparently there was a potential suitor for his sister and he wanted views on how thorough of an assessment one needs to make. The speaker was of the view that one needs to go a little deeper than simply determining whether the man prays five times a day and goes to the mosque on Friday. Having discussions with his associates or other family members should help determine whether he is a good Muslim. I know this type of "due diligence" is typical in Qatar when Qataris are assessing potential spouses.

The lecture ended and Murat & I went back to the souq to get a juice and chat. Murat joked that his wife said she would accept him having another wife if their two friends A & B got married again. The joke was that they both knew if either of those guys got a second wife their first wife would probably kill them. ;-)

Overall the lecture was okay but I didn't learn a lot. If I'm around for any of the other lectures I'll probably stop by. One of the topics will be how to be a good husband in Islam, which may have some of that detail that us Westerners are always interested in when we wonder about how Islamic marriages work.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Qatar Schools – Ministry Report Cards

I was nosing around the website of the Supreme Education Council of Qatar looking at what updates they had and I noticed something. Apparently the SEC do reviews of all the individual schools and publish a summary of each school on their website, a "report card" for each school.

Most of the information appears to be survey-based, asking students and parents about level of homework, satisfaction with the school etc. but if you go down to near the bottom of the report card you will see how the school did on international assessment tests such as TIMMS and PISA. That made for some interesting information. When the PISA results came out in 2009 and 2012 I was always surprised at the low scores that Qatar got in general, and was worried that if international schools on a Western curriculum were scoring above average than local schools must be scoring VERY low. Imagine my surprise when I looked up some of the test scores in the report cards for some of these international schools -- way lower than the average for the country the curriculum came from (at least for PISA). How did that happen??

Want to see how your child's school did? Go here. and click on the school you want to review. Then go to the TIMMS or PISA website and compare the scores.

Saturday, May 05, 2012


AutoCorrect can be one of the worst (and funniest) features on a phone. If you’re not careful when you're texting sometimes the feature will completely change the word. The other day I texted a friend asking him if you wanted to play squash this weekend and his reply text was meant to say...

“Let me get back to you later about playing squash.”

But when he was texting the word “get” he accidentally hit an ‘h’ instead of a ‘g’, “het”. If you think about it there aren't a lot of words that start with 'het' but AutoCorrect took it from there:

“Let me heterosexual back to you later about playing squash.”

LoL! My friends and I had a good laugh about that one. :-)

If you want to see more funny AutoCorrect errors naturally there is a website dedicated to this: (warning: contains bad language – that’s why the corrections are so funny)

I have AutoCorrect turned off on my phone, and now my friend does to.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012


I happened to see a picture the other day in the newspaper and it served as a great example of a piece of Arab clothing called a bisht. A bisht is a robe that is normally worn over a thobe. It is usually worn only on special occasions. For example a Qatari groom and his father will always wear one at his wedding though the guests won’t.

So let's see some pictures to get the general rules for Qataris wearing bishts. I combed the internet for portraits of His Highness the Father Emir (Sheikh Hamad, not to be confused with his son Sheikh Tamim who is the current Emir) since he frequently wears them -- he attends a lot of special occasions.

1) you can wear lighter colored bishts during the day but should generally wear a black one at night.

Here is His Highness the Father Emir in a recent meeting with the president of Lithuania [source: the Gulf Times]. As you can see from the lighting in the room it is daytime and His Highness is wearing a light-colored bisht over his thobe. A black bisht is acceptable to wear in the daytime as well, as evidenced by the Qatari gentleman in the background.

I discussed this with a Qatari friend and traditionally you should only wear lighter-colored bishts during the day but the rule is not strictly adhered to by many Qataris. He did note that His Highness follows the rule and wears light colors during the day and a black bisht in the evenings.

2) wearing one is not as easy as it appears. Your right arm should be in the sleeve but the left side should be draping over your shoulder in a specific way.

In this photo His Highness the Father Emir is giving a speech at the United Nations (at least I'm pretty sure it is at the United Nations). It must be daytime because he's wearing a light-colored bisht. Notice how the left side drapes over his shoulder and his left arm is not in the sleeve. If you look closely at the previous photo you will notice that his left arm is also not in the sleeve. It must take a bit of practice to ensure the bisht doesn't slip off the shoulder.

I'm not sure why the left arm is not put through a sleeve, I even did an Internet search and the only answer I was able to find was, “that's just the way it is". Okay then.

There is a specific style and etiquette to wearing a bisht properly. One of my Qatari friends lamented that many young Qatari men do not know how to properly wear a bisht. He blames negligence by the men of the family for not teaching the younger generation properly.

3) a bisht is typically made of a thin fabric . . .

This picture of His Highness in a black bisht (standing next to one of his wives Sheika Mozah), is an excellent example showing how thin the fabric of a bisht can be. I'm going to speculate that bishts are typically made of a thin fabric because wearing an extra layer of a thicker fabric would not work well in the heat of the Arabian Desert. The dark color of the bisht also clearly shows that it is draping over his left shoulder.

I was told that because the fabric is so thin it likely means that the bisht was made in Najaf, Iraq, where the finest-quality (and most expensive) handwoven bishts are made.

4) . . . but sometimes the fabric is thicker.

It's not always hot in the desert so a bisht can also help against cool weather. In this picture His Highness is at a meeting in Europe. As you can see the gentleman on his left is wearing a coat so it is cold out. The bisht is not black so it must be daytime and it is clearly made of a much thicker fabric than the black bisht in the previous picture.

I also like this picture because it shows His Highness wearing a black thobe. I've noted previously in my blog that Qataris may wear non-white thobes in the winter, also made of a thicker fabric to help against the cold. If you see a picture of a Qatari wearing a non-white thobe then it means that the picture was taken in winter.

(Note: I have been told that Emiratis might wear coloured thobes at any time of the year so if you see an Arab wearing a coloured thobe in hot weather he could be an Emirati.)

For more pictures of Qataris wearing bishts, click on the "Qatari Wedding" label in the right-side column of the blog. I have numerous wedding photos showing Qatari grooms wearing bishts.