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Mar. 26 2010 - 6:51 am | 204 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Wahabi-lite: The disorienting half-freedoms of Qatar

West Bay, located in Al Dafna

En route from Saudi to NY, a stop in Doha. (Image via Wikipedia)

So I’ve only been in Qatar about 24 hours, but already I am in a kind of gentle culture shock. Riyadh, where I have lived the last 18 months, is a land of men, cars, and dusty buildings behind walls. You rarely ever see women, and there are only two skyscrapers. That’s why my trip to the local grocery store here in Doha was so bizarre.

Doha is a moonscape of new skyscrapers — some finished, some in progress — all perched on the baked sands of a half-moon bay. Our tower is on the so-called west side, a short walk from one of the major malls. Picking my way along the scarred half kilometer — some sidewalks complete, others a gash of rubble — I spied south Asian workers in dusty boots and jumpsuits. But I also saw what I took to be a British woman, in a t-shirt, smiling!

This sounds like pedestrian stuff, but to my eyes it felt like scandal. (Could it be possible that it had been so long since I’d seen a woman walk so casually?)

In the mall, shops were closing for afternoon prayer. I raced to the store for water — tap here isn’t potable — and some other basics. As I considered the shrink-wrapped meat and the imported cheeses, I was more enthralled to see a grinning, sunburnt mother in a low-cut blouse and an Arab women in baggy jeans.

But I’m still not too far from Mecca. After 10 minutes, an armed guard grabbed me gently by the arm. “Prayer time,” he said. “Now you go.”

I’m closer to home, but I’m not there yet.

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    About Me

    Since graduating from Deep Springs College, I've written and edited for magazines (Rolling Stone, The Atlantic Monthly), newspapers (The Village Voice, The National), and websites (NPR.org, SixBillion.org). In the summer of 2007, I packed a bag and walked from New York to New Orleans, a trek that took five months, three pairs of shoes, and a couple thousand miles. These days, I live in Saudi Arabia with my wife, Kelly McEvers, who covers the region for National Public Radio.

    See my profile »
    Followers: 41
    Contributor Since: August 2009
    Location:Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

    What I'm Up To

    The Review

    I’m a regular contributor to The Review, which Reihan Salam calls a “younger, radder” New York Review of Books.

    Past pieces include:
    -”Down in the floods,” something in Saudi Arabia may have changed
    -”Checkpoint Qatif,”among Saudi’s Shiite minority
    -”Excursion into the desert,” in which my landlord pulls a gun.
    -”You’ll never walk alone,” a night of soccer in sweltering Riyadh.
    -”Get on the bus,” a story of public transport in Riyadh.
    -”Saudi Arabia’s got talent,” from the nation’s first-ever open TV auditions