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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Visiting houses in Qatar: a culture chasm

I went to a local’s house recently, and to me the experience seemed rather bizarre.

By locals, I don’t mean Qataris. Qataris make up rather less than 20% of the Qatari population, whereas many of the non-Qataris were born here, married here and had children but are still considered foreigners. Still, I understand the experience is not vastly different from what happens in a Qatari household.

What seems weird to me may well be entirely normal to many people throughout the world. I am talking from a Western background, with values and assumptions vastly different from the people I was visiting. But more on that later.

So, what happens? Well, first you are met at the door by your host, and he leads your wife away into the back of the house. I never saw my host’s wife, even though I had met her previously at a mutual friend’s house.

My host lead me into his living room, where there was an array of sweet cakes laid out on a trolley. And when I say sweet, I mean sweet. The tea was even worse – I almost gagged at how much sugar there was in it.

I did see one woman throughout the evening – my host’s mother. She came into the room to serve us our food. Oh, yes, and my friend’s two week old daughter.

Conversation felt a little forced, and I was very relieved to see my wife at the end of the evening, and reaffirm the existence of the opposite sex. My wife felt the same way, as my friend’s wife could speak only a little English and communication had been difficult. Besides which, we actually enjoy spending our evenings together.

It brought home to me what a vast gap there is between cultures here, and I think for the first time in ten years of living abroad it’s a gap I can’t and don’t want to bridge. It’s not religious, because I have had no problems in other countries with Muslim friends: it’s cultural. It’s also the result of being brought up in a country where women are considered not just equals, but as people that you can converse with without fear of imminent sin and overwhelming temptation.

Please don’t take this as a blanket criticism of the culture here. I love the way people value children and family here. I understand that many things in my own culture are unacceptable to the people here, and frankly I am glad that some of them do not exist here.

So I’d encourage other people to accept invitations. Most people here are friendly and welcoming, with the Arab culture of hospitality. Many have an understanding of our culture, and are very tolerant of our lapses regarding theirs. But remember, if you share my background, just how very different we are.

Also see: Qatar Culture

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