Here are a few more questions that I occasionally get when people find out I live in the ME.
1. What's the weather like? (Or ... Is it really that hot? Are the desert nights cold? Do you get a lot of dust storms? Does it ever rain? etc.)
ANSWER: Generally, Qatar is hot. The heat varies, but the weather never strays much from hot. The months of October to May are actually quite pleasant, ranging from low 20's to low 30's. Humidity is not so high during those months, and we frequently sit outdoors in the evenings to enjoy a BBQ dinner, a coffee, glass of wine, etc. October, November, March, April and May usually make for good beach weather.
December and January nights can dip to the low teens, and our first year in Qatar it was actually 4 C on New Year's Eve. Since we have nothing but small space heaters to warm up our living spaces, and since most houses are made from cinderblock, warm sweaters and blankets are in order on colder nights. A few sporadic hours of rain and occasional thunder showers are not uncommon in these months, but rarely have I seen it rain for a full day or even for more than a few hours at a time. It can happen though, and our first year in Qatar we experienced about three weeks straight of rain (during the 2006 Asian Games), but this was a truly exceptional occurrence. The rain is usually light, and makes for a slippery mess as it mixes with dust on the ground to create a kind of sand grease that coats cars and windows and lawn furniture.
The months of June to September are not so pleasant in terms of weather. July, August and sometimes September can quite reasonably be likened to hell, with temperatures sometimes soaring up to 50 C coupled with extreme humidity. You do not want to be caught outdoors for any length of time without water and sunblock. Even the swimming pools become too hot to swim in, despite the best efforts of chillers. And on the off-chance the pool is cool enough to bathe in, you will start to steam immediately upon stepping out.
I once went for a run at Aspire Park on a cool September morning at 9:00 a.m. By the time I was 1.1 km into my run, I realized I had no water left, the sun was beating down mercilessly, and I still had 1.1 km left to get to my car no matter which direction I headed. By the time I made it back to the parking lot, I was seeing spots, having visions of myself collapsing right there of severe sunstroke, dehydrated in the midst of the piped-in bird music and manicured lawns. I was salivating like a madwoman at the sight of the manmade lake glistening off in the distance, with delusions of a sprinkler magically switching on, if only for an instant. The experience terrified me; it made me acutely aware of the fact that it is possible to collapse from heat and dehydration just a few hundred meters away from a source of water.
Fog rolls in during the fall months. It can make driving quite treacherous, particularly if you are heading out of the city.
Dust storms are frequent and quite unpleasant, but it is rare that I have seen an actual sandstorm. We tend to get days where the sand particles just seem to hang suspended in the air. If it is windy, the particles can sting your eyes, and if you've mistakenly left a window open while you've been out, you are likely to come back home to little sand mounds scattered throughout the house.
There is a lot of beige. The dust particles create a haze of beige that blocks out blue skies and clouds. There are no puffy, fluffy, low-hanging white clouds here; rare is the day that you will catch ferocious, thunderous, black clouds coursing their way across the skies. No, most days it is just beige, though we do get some amazing flaming red sunsets on occasion.
All in all, the weather can take some getting used to, but I have to admit I don't find it as daunting as I did a few years back. It doesn't even faze me when the weatherman on the radio declares that "It's going to be a balmy 28C today in Doha." In Canada, that statement would read "Get the sunscreen and water spray bottles out, head for the beach, and stay hydrated, it's going to be a sweltering 28C out today."
2. Aren't you concerned about civil unrest?
ANSWER: Is it in the back of my mind? Yes. Am I overly preoccupied? No. Qatar is by all standards a very safe and stable country that happens to be situated in a volatile part of the world. While it would be silly not to be concerned, I truly believe the same can be said no matter where we might happen to be living at any given time.
In August 2008, after a leisurely and peaceful 2-week vacation on the Island of Phuket, our taxi was caught in a protest on the way to the airport, resulting in us having to walk the final kilometer with our 3-year-old daughter and 4 pieces of luggage in tow through the throngs of protesters who blocked the roads leading to Phuket International Airport and eventually the tarmac itself, resulting in 118 flight cancellations. Military and airport personnel helped hoist us over the airport gates and we were among the lucky few to board the last plane to fly out of there for the next four days. (click on the link below this post to read more about the airport demonstrations.) My point? You just never know when chaos will strike. North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, there is no telling what awaits you.
Natural disasters, violent protests, demented and crazed individuals out to cause maximum damage ... they're everywhere. It's no great help losing sleep over "what if's".
3. Is it hard for a Western woman to get used to such a male-dominated society?
ANSWER: This is really a tough one to answer. There's no simple yes or no answer for me. In many ways, once you've gotten into your groove, life for a Western woman here is really not that different than in Canada or elsewhere. But there are definitely differences. Some of these are good; for example special lines for women in banks and other public establishments, the ability for me to quite openly call out any male who shows harassing or inappropriate behavior that could be deemed an insult to my honor; the tendency to be given preferential treatment at the airport if you are traveling with a young child.
But it's important to always remember where you are. I do not offer to shake any man's hand unless he offers to shake mine first. Most men are not offended, but some could be; when I first arrived here I was most startled when I met a male colleague who I'd spoken to and corresponded with for months but never actually seen face to face. He had the annoying habit of always calling me "mate" over the phone, in a very thick British accent. I felt this was a bit familiar, but he was a nice enough guy, so I let it slide. When I finally met him, I reached out to shake his hand, and he politely refused, telling me his religion did not allow him to touch women he was not related to. I was truly stunned; it seemed a departure from his very chatty and congenial nature. But I took note, and now discretely tap my heart with my right hand when introductions are made.
Older men may be particularly offended by a female's overt presence, and I have seen one become absolutely irate upon seeing a female Western customer sitting on her own, close to a young family in the male waiting area. While most establishments have separate female and male waiting areas, it is common practice for families to sometimes sit together in the male waiting area. But I would advise against sitting there as a woman alone. It's just not worth the potential confrontation and humiliation.
Some things are hard to wrap your head around as a Western woman, such as not being able to get a job without your husband's signed permission, not being able to set up initial accounts without your husband's help (e.g. phone, electricity, etc.). Knowing that my husband gets a "ping" on his phone every time my daughter and I exit or enter the country (he gets this as he is our sponsor).
But in general, life is no different here for me than it was in Canada. I just have to think a little more. Think about my actions, think about my surroundings. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
There are many more questions ... fodder for a future post.