Sunday, September 30, 2012

500 posts!

It's my 500th post on this blog! Who'd a thought I would have been here over six years after that first post?

I figured I'd celebrate this milestone by looking back at some of my posts over the years, and the ones that have proven to be the most popular.

Looking at my first post, discussing why I started the blog, for the most part it has still held true. I will say that over the years the blog slowly moved away from critical thinking and went more into examining Islam and the culture of Qatar. As I got to know the country better and made some Qatari friends it became easier to discuss these kinds of topics. Hopefully they've been helpful to most of you who have come by looking for information about the region or Islam from a Westerner's perspective.

As an example, check out this post from my first Ramadan in 2006. Definitely a big change from how I cover Ramadan now. Over the years I've gone from “Ramadan is kind of odd” to doing the fast myself and trying to explore the holiday more in-depth.

Of course having Qatari friends has been great in helping to understand the region and they have never had a problem with helping me to understand things, even though they know it will likely appear on the blog. Whether it's weddings, falconry, or camping, that they have been willing to share aspects of their culture with me is truly appreciated. They also don't mind some of my more tongue-in-cheek interpretations of Qatar, such as the existence of a Secret Ministry.

I've even used my understanding of Islam to occasionally counter Internet misconceptions about it, usually by responding in forums but sometimes in a blog post. This one discussing whether Muslims can be good Americans or Canadians still gets a dozen or so hits every month, which means that original chain email is still being circulated around.

I'm also surprised sometimes by what gets noticed. spotted my blog a couple of years ago and occasionally links to my posts, such as the tale of paying my cleaner, or places I walk around the city.

It's not just Qatar though, there was a brief flurry of activity from East Asia during my discussions of how Shanghai did in the recent PISA tests. It was even linked to in a Korean forum for some reason.

I still also get traffic for my post comparing London versus Paris (and its 2011 update, London versus Paris versus Rome). Looks like lots of people are interested in which city is better to visit. Sadly no one has ever left comments about whether they followed my advice or agreed with my opinions. I hope it proved useful.

Generally the posts I personally like the best are the more humorous ones. Whether it's warning the world about Speedos, soul-eating cats, the existence of the Secret Ministry, examining hip-hop videos, or listing things that annoy me, these are the types of posts that tend to put a smile on my face. To this day some friends of mine still quote my post about their cats (and the mysterious Qatsquatch).

It's not always fun and games though. Aside from upteen posts about whatever health trouble I've been having at the time I always wondered what happened to Mr. Kamal, my first Arabic teacher. I wish his remaining family well and hope they made it through the war okay.

So, what have been the most popular posts?

Bizarrely the most popular post is due to a Google error. My post on Beaches included a picture of a beach in Bermuda for comparison. Unfortunately Google Image Search keeps using that picture as a representation of a beach in Qatar, which inevitably leads to about 250+ people a month Googling something like “Qatar beach”, seeing a picture of beautiful sand and palm trees, and clicking on it to find out more about this really nice beach. I’ve put a warning in the post so thankfully I haven't received any nasty comments about the ruse. Who knew that one innocent picture would cause such a problem? For a better discussion about beaches and the nearby sand dunes I suggest going to this post instead.

Aside from that “technical glitch” the most popular post has been my discussion of where to eat in Doha, which also gets tons of hits from people interested in good restaurants in Qatar. I'm curious if anyone's tried the more adventurous places I recommended (please leave a comment in that post if you have).

While individually they are popular combined they would be the most popular post in the blog -- my pictures of various Qatari weddings. If you Google image search “Qatari wedding” a lot of the pictures on the first page are mine. I guess Qataris don't like to post pictures of their weddings on the Internet. Anyway go here, here, or here for the posts, or click the “Qatari Wedding” category on the right side.

A recent post that's climbing the charts was my post on the dark robe sometimes worn by Arabs known as a “bisht”. The post has a high ranking on the Google search engine because, to my surprise, there aren’t many English-language websites that actually discuss bishts and how to wear them.

Another popular post is an oldie but a goodie -- how does Al Ahli Hospital compare to Doha Clinic. This post is from three years ago but still gets a lot of hits. Some of the comments are from staff! Thankfully I have never been admitted to hospital since so I haven't been able to do an update.

In the same vein my post on how to renew an e-gate card gets a lot of hits from people in Qatar. It's a confusing process and there isn't a lot of information online on exactly what to do. Glad to have helped.

My taste-test of five varieties of dates is also popular especially for people searching “ajwa dates”, which turned out to be my favorite variety of the five.

And finally, a post with a brief history of Qur’anic calligraphy gets a pretty consistent amount of views. I have to give credit to the Museum of Islamic Art for having such a great collection so I could take pictures of examples, and for hosting the seminar that inspired me to write about it.

So here's to 500 posts! Thanks to everyone who stopped by, I hope the blog was informative and interesting. With any luck I'll be around Qatar long enough for another 500.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Reflections on Turkey - Part 3, Ephesus

One of the side trips I did was a three-hour bus ride to the ruins of Ephesus, one of Turkey's best Greek/Roman ruins.

Not surprisingly there were a ton of buses all going from Bodrum to Ephesus. I'd been warned by friends that most of my pictures would likely consist of a sea of heads and cameras because of the thousands of tourists that would be there. That said the Turkish Government, or perhaps a Tourism Ministry, had put facilities in place for such a migration. Whatever stops we did for meals, even if it was in a small village, was set up to handle hundreds of people, including toilet facilities. The food was never great, typically a mediocre buffet, but it was efficient and it sure beat hundreds of us being crammed into some small restaurant that wouldn't be able to handle busloads of people.

So we got to Ephesus around 11ish, and stocked up on water at a nearby store. We were told that there were no restaurants or stalls in Ephesus so you needed to buy water ahead of time -- it was going to be a hot day.

The ruins were crowded but perhaps because it was summer it was not as bad as I expected. The city is easy to navigate, essentially one long area so as long as you kept moving downhill you were headed to the other end. Despite its size there is still plenty of the city to excavate, apparently during Roman times it may have had as many as 200,000 people.

It had some impressive ruins. The main shopping street was relatively intact.

The Library of Celsus, the most majestic building of the ruins.

And a colossal amphitheater.

One of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Temple of Artemis, was in Ephesus but unfortunately it was destroyed over 2000 years ago so there's really nothing of it to see.

Afterward we did a quick trip to the House of the Virgin Mary, an area on a mountainside where it is believed that the Virgin Mary lived after leaving Jerusalem. It's a major Catholic pilgrimage site and Popes visit it whenever they come to Turkey (including Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI).

It's pretty straightforward, you go up to the house and enter it (inside is a small shrine as well as the gifts left by the Popes during their visits). No pictures allowed inside I'm afraid but it's a fairly small space, at most two dozen people could fit in there.

After leaving there is an area for you to light a candle.

Then you go down to the nearby springs, maybe 50 feet away from the house, to drink the water (many people also brought bottles to collect water). I assume the water is considered holy.

Then you pass the Wishing Wall, where pilgrims write down wishes or prayers and attach them to the wall.

Ephesus is well worth visiting (yes, even with a three-hour bus ride each way), though you might be better off renting a car and staying overnight nearby, that way you can visit the ruins either in the morning or later in the day when all the tour buses aren't there.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Do Muslims Hate America?

Today in the Washington Post I came across an opinion column that I think is worth reading, on why Muslims hate America.

Mr. Rashid makes some good points and the main ideas are things that I too have stated in this blog:

1) Rabid anti-American sentiment is only from a minority of Muslims
2) That the West is seen by many as hypocritical in its views on freedom, telling the Islamic world that it should embrace democracy and freedom yet at the same time supporting dictators or enacting legislation that impinges upon freedom (ex. French anti-veil laws)

In terms of these recent “anti-Islam film” protests I still think the Islamists are going overboard here as many seem to be of the misguided view that the US Government is somehow directly or tacitly behind everything that goes on in America. Why the US Government is getting blamed because some bigot made some amateur film and posted it on YouTube is beyond me and betrays a lack of understanding by many in the Islamic world of how media works in the West. Such violent reactions are counterproductive, and in fact could even encourage other bigots or trolls to make more films simply to promote further outrage and continue the division between the West and the Islamic world.

I'm not sure what the solution is. If there are massive protests and violence every single time someone releases anything deemed anti-Islamic, or some random preacher in small-town USA decides to burn a Qur’an, I could it see a reaching a point where people will have to protest every single day as more and more Westerners turn to amateur theatrics just to provoke outrage. Then what?

Freedom of speech is not all-encompassing, Western nations have various laws that put limits to it and many have “hate crime” legislations that prevent promoting hatred against a particular group. As long as those are applied fairly regardless of the group being targeted there is little more that can be done legislatively.

So what's the solution?

Friday, September 21, 2012

More Evil Eye

Slowly improving. My eye is almost completely open now and I'm definitely feeling a lot better. Not 100%, but better. Light doesn’t bother me as much as it did before either.

Went out for a short walk this evening, first time I've done any kind of exercise in about two weeks. It is still hot out and unfortunately I have to be careful about over-exerting myself -- can't risk sweating and making things worse. I'm hoping by the middle of next week I'll be able to go out for longer walks.

Prognosis from the doctors has been upbeat but I might be on some of the medications for a couple of months. There is also still a chance I could develop eye damage so I need to be careful. I will find out how things are progressing next week at my next appointment.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Evil Eye

Still sick but feeling a bit better than I have in previous days. My eye is partially open and I'm hopeful things will improve over the next couple of days. Visited the eye doctor yesterday and apparently there is no damage to the cornea so far, which was good to hear.
The doctor was still not 100% happy and has changed one of my medications to see if that improves things.

Sitting at home is not all that relaxing. Light still annoys me so I cannot watch TV or computer screen for very long (not that it was easy to do with one eye anyway). A lot of time is spent sitting on the couch listening to my music player.

I go back tomorrow to visit two doctors so we'll see how things go from there.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Eye Update

Things started getting worse so I went to another doctor for a second opinion. I won't get into the specifics of what's going on but I walked into the ophthalmology department of the hospital and asked to see a doctor. The lady at the desk apologized and said there were no appointments available today.

So I lowered my sunglasses.

There was a brief pause.

And without saying a word she picked up the phone, "Are there any doctors who can see a walk-in patient now?"

So I got to see a doctor. In the end I got to see four.

I now have a complete change of diagnosis, was told to stop taking my previous five medications, start taking these new four medications, and was given sick leave for another week -- though it might turn out to be for longer than that. I now have two follow-up appointments scheduled. I'm confident that this time the diagnosis is right so it's now a matter of seeing this through. (And it's not like the first doctor was way off base apparently in the early stages this disease is typically diagnosed as conjunctivitis)

Resting at home now but man this sucks.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Pink Eye!

Yesterday my right eye was itching a little and slightly swollen. Figured I was just tired but when I woke up this morning it was slightly worse. Wasn't a big deal, just a little irritating, so I went to work but by the afternoon it got a bit worse so I decided to go to the doctor in case it was an infection or something.

A few tests later confirmed:

-- My vision is great (no glasses for me!)
-- And I have infectious blepharoconjunctivitis (one of the many conditions we commonly call "pink eye"

The doctor then gave me a note for two days off work. I said I felt okay so might not need it but the doctor told me that it is infectious so I need to stay home. Oh, okay then.

So I'm now sitting at home with five medications (two eyedrops, one ointment, and two oral antibiotics). Looks like I'm essentially going to be in quarantine for a couple of days. I suppose it's for the best -- my eye has swollen even more now but at least I've started the medications.

I tried to take a picture of my eye for the blog but unfortunately it kept coming out blurry (or maybe that's just my vision) :-p

Saturday, September 08, 2012

More Falcons

Just a quick update that the new 2012 stock of Falcons is in stores now. Shops in Souq Waqif have tons of options available and there are plenty of Qataris milling about purchasing.

I asked one of my friends how much a falcon costs. There are a lot of factors:

1) breed (there are many varieties)
2) colour (ones with a lot of white feathers are worth more, to the extent that some unscrupulous sellers may paint feathers to try to give the falcon more value)
3) size
4) whether it was captured in the wild or captive-raised (apparently wild ones are worth more)

It's not cheap to have a falcon. At a minimum you are looking at least QAR 3,000 (US $825) for a falcon, though the base price for some breeds starts upwards of QAR 10,000 (US $2,700). Of course nicer specimens fetch much more than that. And that's before you buy all the accessories and train them. Add feeding (mostly raw chicken) and frequent medical checkups and the costs really add up.

Check them out at Souq Waqif when you get the chance.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Reflections on Turkey - Part 2, Neighbours

Staying with my friend for a week at his apartment in Mudanya showed that neighborhoods in Turkey tend to be close-knit. In Turkish cities owning a house tends to be a luxury, most people live in apartments. People who live in homes are either, (a) rich or, (b) living in a house so old that it looks like it'll fall over any second.

Perhaps because of this apartment living, or perhaps because of Turkish culture, everyone tends to know all of their neighbors. People generally discuss what they have seen recently in the area and neighborhood ladies all meet periodically to share gossip. It quickly became apparent to me that this “network” helps keep the neighborhood close. To a North American it almost became to the extent of your neighbors being overly nosy but here in Turkey no one seemed to mind.

I'm not saying it's necessarily a bad thing. Years ago Bill Cosby gave a very powerful speech, known by many as the “Pound Cake Speech” where he said that part of what is wrong with black communities today is the loss of this neighbourhood closeness.

. . . In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on. In the old days, you couldn't hooky school because every drawn shade was an eye. And before your mother got off the bus and to the house, she knew exactly where you had gone, who had gone into the house, and where you got on whatever you had one and where you got it from. Parents don't know that today. . . .

That closeness still appears to exist in Turkey. When my friend brought his mother to visit (she used to live there but now lives in a retirement community in another city) “the network” had spread the news within an hour. Throughout the week people were coming by to meet her, or stopping by to say hi to my friend, discuss business, give updates on whatever neighborhood crisis was happening, or whatever. I joked with my friend it was like I stepped in as a guest star on Coronation Street, my presence did not dampen people discussing problems with so-and-so’s engagement, who’s recently moved out of the building, us being stopped in the street to discuss the recent fire (see below) and so forth. I'm sure news of my arrival had also spread throughout the neighborhood as no one seemed too phazed by me being around.

So onto a crisis that happened while I was there. Remember in my first post about Turkey there was this picture.

Well the next day it looked like this.

See something different? During the day while my friend and I were out touring around, there was a fire that swept through some old homes!

There was debris all over the place including pieces of roof tile all over the road. The homes were small, old, and side-by-side. And much of the cooking was done with butane, so they each had big butane canisters in the kitchens. Once the fire hit the butane canister it would explode, spreading the fire and scattering pieces of roof. Thankfully no one was killed.

The neighborhood gossip network went into full swing. Unfortunately by the end of my week there I never found out the exact story behind what went on. We briefly spoke to someone who lived next to the homes who told my friend that he kept telling “them” to stop doing “it” but it wasn't clear to my friend what he was talking about. “Them” were Roma, who apparently lived in some or all of the homes and we assume he meant they were doing something reckless with fire or cooking with butane.

We also found out from others that all the homes were on one piece of property recently purchased by a developer, leading to rumors of arson so the developer could clear the land. Not sure how true that would be since the fire did not destroy all the homes on the property. Another rumour was that the developer had already told the occupants their leases would be canceled sometime in the future (Three months? Six months? No one seemed to be sure), so it wouldn’t make much sense for the developer to take such action. This led to speculation that one of the occupants set fire to a house in retaliation for being kicked out, which unfortunately spread to other homes.

Developer arson? Tragic accident? Renter retaliation? Anyway it was of course big news in the neighborhood.

Overall I was surprised at how well people knew each other. In Qatar even now I don't know any of the neighbors in my apartment building and I've lived in this building for over a year. I can't say I've made a huge effort but when you see someone in the hall and say “Hi” and the only response you get is “Hi” as they walk by it's clear they're not that interested either.

When I reflect on it I'm not sure why it is that way. Maybe the transient nature of being an ex-pat in Qatar, where people constantly move in and out of the country, doesn't make people inclined to be neighborly. Maybe it's because people are from so many different countries so they’re inclined to keep to themselves because they don't know how to relate to their foreign neighbors. Who knows?

I like how it was in Turkey. I kind of wish it would be like that here.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Reflections on Turkey – Part 1, Closeness

Turks by-and-large are an open, outgoing people, more so than North Americans and Qataris. One word I sometimes use to describe them is “huggy”, and once they know you they tend to engage in closer contact than you might find in other cultures. This is important to know if you are someone who is big on "personal space" as Turks don’t follow that to the same degree as elsewhere.

For example my friend Murat and I were walking in downtown Mudanya. We were going to see a friend of his who ran a mobile accessory store as we needed to buy a Turkish SIM card. When we got there he greeted Murat enthusiastically, shook my hand with a smile when I was introduced as Murat's friend, and then we went just outside his small shop where he had a couple of chairs so we could chat over some tea. There was another person in the store at the time and he joined us outside as well.

As there were only two chairs I was sitting while our host was standing, and while he stood next to me and chatted with his friend and Murat he kept his hand on my shoulder. In North America it would be pretty unusual for that to happen with someone you had only met two minutes ago but in Turkey I guess that is not unusual at all. That probably wouldn't be done with a stranger but I was a friend of a friend so I guess in Turkey a friend of your friend is your friend as well.

Openness appeared to be a hallmark of the culture. There were times when people on the Mudanya Corniche would ask me questions, or if they knew Murat we were immediately invited to their café table to chat about whatever. I received invitations to people's homes for snacks and tea. And all it would take is an introduction from my friend and workers at restaurants would come over to say hi. One visit and the barber remembered me. Someone else offered to take me to the Hammam in Bursa so that I could see the place and to tour around the city.

As a frequent traveler I usually get suspicious of such out-of-the-blue offers of hospitality. Sadly it's difficult nowadays for a tourist to not assume such things are some kind of scam. Knowing that I was with a Turk, and also not in a city frequented by foreign tourists, it was great to be able to accept the hospitality without worrying about any ulterior motives.

Another example. When I was in Bodrum I managed to find a small café in an alleyway where the owner sold tea and coffee (at reasonable prices) to the other shop owners so he and his assistant were always running back and forth to the shops to deliver cups of tea. Seats primarily consisted of small stools out in the alleyway. Every day I would stop by there for a Turkish coffee, or a tea if it was later in the evening, as in my opinion it was one of the few "authentic" places in central Bodrum, tucked away from the fancy shops and restaurants. I never saw a tourist there but there were always Turks from the neighborhood sitting around chatting.

The owner didn't speak any English so conversation consisted of me ordering a drink but given I was one of the few tourists who came to his café he quickly recognized me whenever I would come up the alleyway. During my last night in Bodrum after paying for my coffee I gestured that I was flying home so the owner came up and gave me a hug (consisting of hug on one side of the face then the other, kind of like the double kiss that Europeans do only without the kiss) and said what I assume was Turkish for goodbye.

All I had done was have maybe five or six drinks over the week at his café. We couldn't talk to one another. He didn't even know my name. Yet I was still given a goodbye hug.

Even at the airport in Ankara the lady working at the café, when she realized I was trying to use Turkish to order, spent time to teach me the Turkish words for the various pastries and drinks that were available, as well as the Turkish words for small and large so that I could better order in Turkish. She understood English perfectly well yet wanted to teach me Turkish words so as to help me order in Turkish. (No, there was no one else in line so it's not like other customers were impatiently waiting for me to figure out Turkish)

It's a sharp contrast to Canada where people are generally polite but not as open, or Qatar, where locals can be very friendly and hospitable once you get to know them -- but it takes a lot more to get to know them.

The Turks I know have been unable to really explain why Turks are open like that, they just are.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Back from Turkey

I have returned! Had a great time, the first week was in Mudanya on the shore of the Sea of Marmara, followed by a week in the resort city of Bodrum, with some tours of the ruins at Ephesus and Parmalukke. Also did a day trip to the Greek island of Kos. Weather was hot and sunny everyday, perfect for all the beachgoers who were flooding Bodrum.

I had long talks with my friend about the differences between Turkey and Qatar, and how the country approached Islam. He said it would be worthwhile to discuss these things on my blog, noting my impressions of the various aspects of the country. Sounds good to me, so over the next couple of weeks I'll do some posts.

For now though I think I'll get a bit of rest.