Friday, December 27, 2013

Christmas in Doha

Christmas was pretty busy for me this year. Luckily it was a day off at the office, Christmas is not a public holiday here and many businesses in Qatar don't give it as a holiday. This means while I had the day off for the most part it was just a regular day in the city. All the stores and restaurants were open.

This year the Christmas decorations at malls, stores, and especially hotels were a lot more subdued than previous years. Some friends of mine were telling me about how at hotels like the Ritz there were very few Christmas decorations, and certainly nothing to the extent there were in the past. I discussed this with two different Qataris and both said it was likely due to a more conservative stance by the new Emir, Sheikh Tamim. That doesn't seem unreasonable, recently hotels were ordered to not serve alcohol outside or by the pools so Qatar appears to be getting a little more conservative in regards to non-Muslim activities.

I celebrated Christmas by sleeping in (yay!), then running around picking up a couple of things before heading over to my friend’s for an early Christmas dinner, including turkey, all the trimmings, even pumpkin pie (my favourite). Exchanged gifts of course, and for their daughter I gave her some new clothes. Hopefully she’s still young enough to not care that she received clothes for Christmas, when you’re a kid you eventually reach an age where you hope for toys and clothes are not a ‘cool’ gift.

In the past we've met for Christmas at a hotel buffet but this year my friends decided to host at their place, starting the dinner early so that the young children at the dinner could go to bed at a decent time. Which was great because I had to leave around 7 to go to . . .

. . . a wedding!

Remember how I mentioned that Christmas is not a holiday in Qatar? To Muslims this is just any other day and it just so happened to be the day one of my Qatari friends was getting married. So I went to the hall, chatted with a lot of my friends who were also there for the celebration, gave my congratulations to the groom of course and watched some of the festivities (unfortunately I forgot my camera though). The evening ended at a hotel café on the beach with some of my friends, chatting while they smoked shisha.

It was not a typical Western Christmas but I’ll take it anyday.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Computer problems

Yesterday I think there was a power outage while I was out of the house and it has messed up my computer. Could take a while to get fixed so blog updates will be sporadic until I sort this out.

[posted using a friend's computer]

Thursday, December 19, 2013

National Day 2013

This year I started National Day (December 18th) on the wrong foot -- I overslept so there was no way I could get down to the Corniche in time for the parade. I had to make do with watching the aerial show from the street outside my apartment building.

From there it was off to Katara to see the National Day festivities. There was a long line up to get in I soon found out that was because they were stopping cars to hand them gifts.

I was given a big box. Inside was a garland of flowers. That was nice of them, I wasn't sure what to do with it though.

Many Qataris decorate their vehicles for National Day. Plenty of shops offer painting or other forms of patriotic covers for their vehicle.

Many were also wearing clothing with national colors (such as maroon thobes, something I don't see any other time of year).

It was pretty busy down at Katara, and most of the events hadn't started yet.

There were all sorts of things for kids, like horses for kids to sit on.

There was also a huge book where people could write their support for Qatar.

And stunt parachuting.

And some activities on the beach.

Waiting outside the amphitheater was the Emiri Guard’s band

So I went into the amphitheater, took a seat, and watched them give a 40-minute performance.

I left around 4:45 in order to get home before the traffic got bad. Too late, the roads were already jampacked and it took me about an hour to get home. From there I walked to Souq Waqif (it would take me longer to find a parking space than to walk there). Not surprisingly it was packed.

In the square they had traditional singing by Arab ladies, which was a rarity. Almost any time I've seen traditional singing it was by men.

After dinner at the Souq I went down to the Corniche to watch the fireworks. No surprise that the Corniche was packed with people waiting for the fireworks. I think tens of thousands were there.

The road was also packed with vehicles. Many of them were waving flags and generally celebrating the holiday.

After the excellent fireworks display (sorry, my pictures didn’t turn out) I wandered back home. Thankfully I lived close enough to walk back, I'm sure it took some people hours to get home.

Happy National Day Qatar!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

National Day 2013 – Qatari Celebrations

Last night I was invited to one of the tribal tents set up for National Day. Have you heard of National Day Ceremonial Road? Neither had I. It is out in Rayyan, past Education City but before Rayyan Stadium (you can find it on Google maps). It's a huge road near the palace where Qataris set up massive tents to celebrate National Day. It is located near the main palace so that His Highness the Emir can easily visit the celebrations.

Here's the outside of the tent that I visited. It's actually more like a series of small tents surrounding a large open area. This was only one of 22 such areas that have been set up along the road. Don't be fooled by the lack of cars, they were all behind me in a massive impromptu parking lot -- there were a few hundred people there.

Inside were a group of singers and a large number of Qataris sword dancing, celebrating the holiday. Other men were standing around chatting, drinking tea or Arabic coffee, or sitting in chairs that ringed the area.

Not surprisingly the traffic was really bad and it took me around an hour to get out there. When I arrived my friend told me that His Highness the Emir and His Highness the Father Emir were here but had left about 20 minutes ago. Dang it, I missed seeing the Emir visiting.

You can still see the tents today and I'm willing to bet there will be celebrations on National Day Ceremonial Road well into the evening. If you think you can handle the traffic drive by and take a look at the tents.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Camel Racing

I received an invitation from a Qatari friend to attend some camel races out at Shahanniya. I still don't know exactly when they hold races (it doesn't seem to be something commonly advertised in English) so it was great when I received the invitation as then I knew I would be there when there were some races to watch.

So we headed to the starting line, where camels were awaiting medical inspections before heading up to the start line.

Everyone then hopped into SUVs to follow the camels when they start racing.

And we were off!

It was a lot of traffic but there were camels there, I swear! :)

The little boxes on the camels' backs were "robot jockeys". Instead of human jockeys the camels have boxes that allow someone to press a button to whip the camel. Human jockeys were banned in the GCC years ago due to outcry from human-rights groups (the jockeys were children) so everyone moved to using the robots.

For some reason I wasn't too worried about getting into an accident despite all the vehicles zooming around. That said, there was one minor accident that day when a fender fell off of a Land Cruiser and the guy behind him ran it over.

There were too many vehicles to get past to see the winner cross the finish line but it was easy to see from what nation the camel was from as the owner and his friends would immediately start celebrating (in this instance the winner was a camel from Oman).

The top three camels would then have a mixture of henna and saffron rubbed on their heads as sort of a victory tribute.

Raising a racing camel is expensive so these races offer great prizes, for example these Land Cruisers.

Time for another race.

And we’re off!

Crowds would yell and cheer as the camels were heading to the finish line.

It was a cool experience. If I can find out exactly where you can get the racing times I'll post it here but if you go on Friday or Saturday you should be able to at least see some camels being trained or doing practice races (except maybe in summer).

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

PISA 2012 Results Are Out

The OCED have now released the 2012 PISA results (a test given every three years to 15-year-olds to test their abilities in reading, math and science). You can find the summary report here.

In the past I used to note where Qatar ranked in terms of the number of countries. Unfortunately it's apparent that that was an unfair thing to do -- a number of countries that in 2009 were ranked in the bottom declined to participate in PISA 2012 so Qatar appears near the bottom again since many countries that fared worse aren’t on the list now.

This is Qatar’s 3rd PISA test so let’s see the trends. I have included the OCED average for each test for comparison and as an indication of whether a particular test was more difficult compared to the others.


OECD average
2006 492
2009 493
2012 496

2006 312
2009 372
2012 388


OECD average
2006 499
2009 496
2012 494

2006 318
2009 368
2012 376


OECD average
2006 500
2009 501
2012 501

2006 349
2009 379
2012 384

So Qatar did improve in all three categories again. The increase in scores was nowhere near as dramatic as between 2006 and 2009 but there were still improvements. In fact Qatar has had the greatest level of improvement over the nine years than any other country. There's still a long way to go though, the scores indicate that kids in Qatar probably lag a good year to a year and a half behind their OECD peers.

In other PISA news the city of Shanghai once again dominated all three categories, East Asian countries consistently ranked amongst the top, and Western educational darling Finland posted a decrease in scores. Even Vietnam, being part of the PISA project for the first time, showed impressive scores given it's not a particularly wealthy country. Canada showed a slight decrease but remained well above the OCED average in all categories.

Start doing a Google News search for “PISA”. You'll see all sorts of articles in the Western press about the test, how their country scored, what's wrong with their educational systems etc.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

PISA Test – Gender Differences in Reading, Math and Science

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (also known as PISA) is held every three years and in 2012 tens of thousands of 15-year-olds from 65 countries took part, including Qatar. This was Qatar’s third time participating in PISA and the results from the 2012 test will be available in a few days.

When I discussed the 2009 results I caused a bit of controversy in some East Asian forums by challenging the seemingly incredible results posted by Shanghai (here and here) but surprisingly there wasn't much of an issue with Qatar’s very low scores. Qatar did show some improvement between 2006 and 2009 and I sure hope that progress continues because right now Qatar’s scores are very low given the overall wealth of the country. Qataris I spoke to about the 2009 results were not surprised in the least and were generally cynical about the overall quality of the educational system. Plenty of reforms have been underway, and the Supreme Education Council has been doing the right thing by not trying to hide or downplay the PISA scores, even going so far as to post the PISA scores of individual schools.

While I was checking to see if the 2012 results were out I happened to come across a great analysis by the OCED where they take the 2009 results for each country and analyze them by various factors, including gender. I found the gender results to be the most interesting.

If you would like to see the results yourself, go to the following link and click on Table B1, which will then upload an excel spreadsheet with tons of tables and analysis.

With 66 countries participating in 2009 here’s the results:

Reading (Table I.2.3)

In every single country, girls had better reading scores than boys. The difference was statistically significant in every country whether it was in Europe, North America, East Asia, the Middle East, wherever. I was not expecting the results to be so consistent across the world, and while I have no definitive answer for why this would be the consistency across numerous cultures and peoples would seem to indicate that there is a biological component to it. Is the area of the brain that handles reading better developed in 15-year-old girls than boys? Are hormones playing a role?

Mathematics (Table I. 3.3)

Unlike the reading scores for math boys generally performed better than girls. In all OECD countries boys’ scores were either better or the same as girls – girls did not perform statistically better in any OECD nation. In 23 of 36 OECD nations the difference between boys’ and girls’ scores was statistically significant.

Things get interesting when we look at the non-OECD countries. In a handful of those countries girls performed statistically better.

There might be a cultural component. I analyzed it by geographic region and bizarrely:

1. In Scandinavia girls performed the same as boys (except in Denmark)
2. In former Soviet-bloc countries it was also more even, in 9 of 13 countries there was no statistical significance between girls and boys
3. However in the rest of Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand boys were resoundingly better, being statistically better in 16 of 18 countries. In none of these countries were girls statistically better than boys.
4. In East Asia boys and girls were even in 6 out of 9 countries, with boys better in the remaining three.
5. Qatar was one of the few countries where girls scored statistically better than boys (the others: Albania, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Peru, and Trinidad & Tobago)

Why is there such a discrepancy in places like UK, US, Canada, Germany, France and Australia, when in other parts of the world it appears to be a bit more even? Does it have something to do with that prevalent myth that “girls can't do math?” Does that attitude exist in places like Germany and France? Why are girls so much better in reading but lose ground in math? These are the sorts of things that I hope educational researchers are looking at.

Science (Table I.3.6)

Of the three categories science had the least variation between boys and girls in OCED countries. Of the 35 OECD countries boys were statistically better in 9, girls were statistically better in 5, and in the remaining 21 countries there was no difference.

Things are a little more varied in the non-OECD nations and the differences in terms of absolute results were also larger than in the OCED nations. Surprisingly, of the 31 nations boys were statistically better in only 2, girls were statistically better in 16 (wow!), and in the remaining 13 countries there was no difference.

Where did boys perform better? Pretty much Western Europe, North America and South America. If we count Scandinavia as separate from Western Europe then Denmark is the outlier as the only country not in the above regions where boys were better than girls. In Finland girls were better and there was no statistical difference in the remaining Scandinavian countries.

In every Soviet-bloc country girls either performed the same as boys or better than the boys.

Interestingly girls performed statistically better than boys in 9 out of 10 countries with a predominantly Muslim population (an argument could be made that Qatar and Dubai do not have a predominantly Muslim population in which case girls performed better in 7 out of 8 Muslim countries). In terms of the difference in absolute scores the greatest differences were in the Muslim countries so not only did girls perform better than boys in Muslim nations, the differences were the greatest.

The PISA website has all sorts of other studies and analysis so I recommend anyone interested in education to look through the papers.

PISA 2012 results are due out in less than a week. Here's hoping Qatar has continued to improve.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Trip to the Inland Sea

This weekend a Qatari friend invited me out to the Inland Sea for the day so I met him, his brother and a friend, on Friday morning at Sealine where he picked me up in his SUV and we all went into the desert.

As it was Friday morning once we got down to the Inland Sea it was getting close to time for the noon prayer. Since Muslims should try to be in a mosque for the Friday prayer I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a mosque all the way down here.

Looks like men from the camps all over the desert drove in. I think there were at least 80 vehicles.

While everyone went in to pray I went to the shore to take pictures. The dune sloped all the way down to the Inland Sea (that’s Saudi Arabia on the other side of the water). It was a really windy that day so a lot of sand was blowing off the dune.

After the prayer we went to a camp, then after chatting with some people went off to my friend’s camp.

In both camps the main tent was huge, around 12x7 meters. It of course had all the amenities, such as air conditioning, television, and even internet. The main tent serves as a majlis, there were other tents and trailers that served as bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom/shower etc.

I joked that camping in Canada is a just a wee bit more rough than this. One of the Qataris explained that they have these camps for around 5-6 months (typically November to March or April) so they tend to be designed for long-term stays. Many Qataris enjoy getting away from the city and staying in their camp as it is much quieter and more relaxing.

We then left the camp to check out a large dune where people in SUVs meet and go sliding across the dune. Check out how many people were there!

Almost everyone was there to watch the dune-bashing, not drive on it. The dune is large and quite steep so the people doing the sliding were driving souped-up vehicles with more powerful engines. A regular SUV doesn't have the power to go across the entire dune (I know because I saw a few try and they couldn’t make it across a third of it)

Standing on top of the dune was cool to get a view but was not without its hazards, especially if one of the sliders went higher up than expected.

Afterwards we went back to the camp where my friend cooked up a fantastic chicken biriyani, served Arab-style in a large platter that we sat around (on the floor) and ate using our right hands.

Thus ended my day at the Inland Sea. It was really cool of my friend to invite me along to his camp so I could experience a Qatari camp firsthand.