Frequently Asked Questions About the ME ... Part 6

Disclaimer:  This post is likely rife with spelling errors and potential misinterpretations on my part as I try to convey my very limited grasp of Arabic.  For those of you who are far more well versed in the language than I, I beg your patience and assure you that improving my Arabic skills is back at the top of my 'to-do' lists.  

Q.  "So, how's your Arabic? "

A.   "Oh, my, do I really have to publicly admit that after almost 7 years in this country, my grasp of the local language is barely enough to get me a glass of water?"

Q.  "Is Arabic hard to learn?"

A.  "I would definitely say so.  Maybe it's just my age, or the lack of true social integration, but I'm finding this language extremely difficult to master.  I speak 3 languages fluently, and can be considered functional in a fourth, yet Arabic continues to elude me.  But if I really committed to it, I know I could learn enough to hold down a basic conversation.  I've seen a number of other expats do so, and I'm quite ashamed to say I haven't tried hard enough."

Anyone who knows me knows I'm all about to-do lists, goals and objectives.  I am "that girl" with the 5-year plan.  The one who plans out the family's weekly meals and writes out her grocery list accordingly.  I am "that girl" who came to Qatar with a very clear set of goals.  At the top of that list was learning Arabic. 

I am also "that girl" who does not hesitate to admit where she has failed (I do that a lot ... I'm pretty sure I've written about that before).  So give me a moment to hang my head in shame and mutter inaudibly "laa atakallam al-'arabiya" ("I don't speak Arabic").

While by no means an excuse, I quickly learned that you do not have to know Arabic to get by in Qatar.  English is widely spoken in shops, restaurants, and office environments.  Movies are shown in English, with Arabic subtitles.  News is broadcast in English on BBC and CNN.  Traffic signs and billboards are displayed in both English and Arabic.  Automated answering services ask you to press "1" for Arabic, "2" for English.  Because fraternization usually brings together diverse nationalities, conversation in public settings and social gatherings usually tends to veer towards English.

While I have tried over the years to perfect my very basic grasp of the language, the hodge-podge of Arabic dialects created by this country's melting pot of nationalities makes it difficult to settle on common phrases that will be universally understood.  I have found pronunciation to be the biggest challenge, and though I find I'm emulating my Michel Thomas Learn Arabic instructors without fault, I am often misunderstood or not understood at all when I actually try to fumble my way through an attempt at conversation.  

This is in large part due to the fact that Michel Thomas instructors refer to Egyptian Arabic, which calls upon a greater English influence, in contrast to the Arabic spoken in Qatar, which is largely influenced by Urdu given the large Pakistani, Nepali, Bangladeshi and Indian populations in this State.  The Urdu slant is totally foreign to me, and I struggle to recognize the sounds, let alone the words.  I do however find myself latching on to bits and pieces of Arabic conversation when the interlocutors are Syrian or Lebanese.  This is likely because of the French influence (or perhaps Arabic influence on French), meaning their conversation will be punctuated by words like "ascenseur" (French for lift), "toilette" (pronounced as per the French 'twalett') and "bantalon" (French for pants is 'pantalon').


There are a few standard Arabic phrases that naturally make their way into English in this part of the world, and that will creep into every expat in the Gulf's vocabulary by force of habit (kind of like the Spanish "que sera, sera", or the French "je ne sais quoi" that intersperse North American English).

-"Insha'Allah" (God willing)

is at the top of every expat's list.  You will hear it every day, several dozen times a day.  In answer to a question, it can mean everything from "yes" to "maybe" to "I hope so" to "I don't know" to "I'm not really willing to commit to a firm answer ... it may never get done."  An example of its use in everyday conversation:

Me:  "Will my paperwork be processed today?" 

Clerk:  "Insha'Allah." 

Me:  "I really need it urgently.  Can you give me a time?" 

Clerk:  "Insha'Allah." 

Me:  "So I can pass by to pick it up at four?" 

Clerk:  "Insha'Allah." 

Me:  "I need these documents if I want to stay in this country." 

Clerk:  "Insha'Allah." 

Me:  "You understand I could face deportation if the processing is delayed?" 

Clerk:  "Insha'Allah." 

Me:  "??????" 

-"Mafi mushkila"  (No problem) 

is another common phrase.  It can be used in much the same way as Insha'Allah, and could easily replace the latter term in the conversation above.

-"Momken" (Possible) 

again, interchangeable with the clerk's responses above. 

-"As-Salaam Alaikum" (Peace be upon you) /

-"Wa-Alaikum Salaam" (And upon you be peace)

This is the standard greeting in the Middle East.  It is a formality that cannot be foregone, and I would argue that if an expat in this part of the world is to leave here mastering nothing else of Arabic, they should have this phrase down pat as a minimum.  In meetings and gatherings, the "Wa-Alaikum Salaam" response if often uttered in unison to the person entering the room who has initiated the greeting with "As-Salaam Alaikum".  I find the sing-song quality of it quite pleasant.  It's not that different than primary students chiming in to say "Good morning, Mrs. Smith" to the teacher who has just greeted them upon entering the classroom.

-"Marhaba" (Welcome/Hello)

Qatar actually has a quarterly publication called "Marhaba", a very useful guide about the country, the culture, do's and don'ts, where to eat, where to shop, what's going on around town, etc.  It is a great little guide that serves to welcome newly arrived expats and keep veteran expats informed on the country's going ons.  I walked around with a copy of that guide book in my handbag for months, and it really did help me feel welcome in this foreign land.  Thanks to that guide, "Marhaba" is a term that I will never forget.

-"Habibi" (Beloved/My Love)

I love this term of endearment.  I hear it all the time, but hesitate to use it for fear it would be misinterpreted as promiscuous or overly friendly.  Men commonly use it when addressing one another, and I think it is what influences so many of my Arabic colleagues with a propensity to refer to me as "My Dear".  (I may be wrong ...) 


I've learned another few short phrases that have served me well over the last few years.  Here are the few that I'm comfortable saying out loud.  I'm not always immediately understood, but I try to put them to good use.

-"Ana Jaw'aana" (I'm hungry.) 

I committed this one to memory by associating it to a girl's name (Anna Joanna).  I try to use it sparingly, but I'm so pleased with my limited grasp of Arabic, and I'm often hungry, so it tends to slip out at least once a day. 

-"Momken Maya" (May I have some water?)

Always good to know this one when living and traveling in the desert. 


Thank you. 


You're welcome. 


I am/My name is.   (e.g. Ismi Gypsy)



-"Shway shway"


-"Yalla Yalla"

Quick, Quick (Hurry)













-"Kaif Halek?" 

How are you? 



-"Ana Mabsouta"

I'm happy.




Then there are those terms that are very similar to English.  They're great words to start with, because you will likely be understood even if you say them in English.  And they're mostly food words, so you won't go hungry!


Pizza (the "p" is pronounced as a "b" in Arabic) 















-"Doctor" (pronounced Doctoor, with a trilled 'r')



I know another handful of words and phrases that MIGHT help get me out of a bind, but nowhere near enough to hold down a conversation.  I blame myself and my hesitation to put myself out there with my poor accent for not having a better handle on Arabic.  Unfortunately, I've let my pride and my fear of being misunderstood limit my attempts at Arabic conversation.  Now that I'm at a new workplace, I've asked my Arabic colleagues to teach me one new word or phrase a day, and they've agreed.  I'm going to try to steal the remote from Smilin' Vic and Kiddo for at least an hour a week to watch a program in Arabic.  I'm going to get back to listening to my Michel Thomas cd's.  And hopefully one day in the future I'll be able to update this post with a little more pride in my achievements.

Frequently Asked Questions About the ME ... Part 5

The Riddle of Strider
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
(J.R.R. Tolkien)
Ramadan is a time of reflection.  So even though I am a non-muslim, I felt compelled during this month to write a reflective piece on the Islamic State that has graciously accepted me as a resident for the past (almost) seven years.
Every once in a while, someone asks me what I think of Doha, what I think of Qatar.  It's never an easy question to answer.  
On the one hand, there are so many things that I love about this country.  Oddly enough, it's not about the amazing architecture, the endless and sumptuous culinary feasts or the incredible wealth that literally seeps from every grain of sand.  While these initially piqued our interest and brought us here, they're not what have kept us here for close to seven years.
No, at the top of the list is that it's probably one of the most child-friendly places in the world.  Our friends and family back home are always a little skeptical when we say that, particularly those who still refuse to believe we live in anything other than a bedouin tent and ride on anything other than a camel.  But ask any expat family who's lived here with young kids; they'll all say the same.
When we first moved here, I suffered numerous panic attacks as restaurant servers and shop keepers would reach out to touch Kiddo, to take her in their arms, even to whisk her away to parade around to their colleagues or patrons.  My skeptic's head was filled with visions of child nabbings back then;  I didn't realize that many of the people working in the service industry here had left little ones like her back home, that they wouldn't see them for two years or more.  I couldn't initially fathom that they just genuinely loved kids.
We would go jogging with her in the jogger stroller on the Corniche on weekends, and laborers would stop us to ask if they could get their picture taken with her.  Our North American mindset would raise flags immediately, until we'd realize that these men had nothing to fill their one day off a week but a game slightly reminiscent of hopscotch.  The sweet giggles of a child were likely a balm to their calloused bodies and minds.  They would gather 'round her, each making funny faces in an effort to get her to focus her bright baby blues on him.
The attention didn't stop there.  I remember walking through the shopping mall and having fully veiled Qatari ladies stop me so they could kiss the top of Kiddo's 14-month round head and give her a hard candy.  Qatari men would lay a hand on her head and utter a small blessing.  At airport customs, we would get whisked to the front of the arrivals line as soon as she got spotted.  The one time I lost sight of her in a grocery store I panicked, and then found her sitting contentedly at the produce weighing counter, munching on the contents of a fruit bowl given to her by the clerk who had seen her wandering alone.
Second on the list would be the surprising acts of kindness, generosity and compassion that we have experienced when we least expected it.  A few weeks ago, I was leaving the grocery store and a Qatari man stopped his truck to let me cross to my parking spot with my trolley.  My trolley got stuck on the curb, and I signaled him to drive on; it was the start of Ramadan, and I didn't want to be contributing to the impatience that sometimes comes during the initial days of fasting.  But the gentleman didn't move.  He put his truck in park, opened his door and got out, and came over to help me lift my trolley off the curb.  Such a small act of kindness, but for some reason it really stood out.
Smilin' Vic once had a minor accident on his bike, nothing major but enough to get him to pull over to the side of the road to recover his bearings and sort himself out.  A Qatari man who saw the incident pulled over and offered to assist.  A slightly embarrassed Smilin' Vic smiled, told him all was fine, and waved him off.  The gentleman drove off, only to return several minutes later with his young son, some water and a first aid kit in tow.   Such a small act of kindness, but never to be forgotten.
I worked with one particular Qatari lady who was fully veiled.  The only thing we would ever see of her in public were her eyes.  But she had the most amazing, expressive smiling eyes I have ever seen.  I will never forget those eyes, not even if I live to be a hundred.  Everyone was drawn to this woman with the smiling eyes.  You would walk up to her and her joy at seeing you was palpable, even though she wore a head to toe cloak of black.  You didn't need to see the smile.  You felt the smile.  You felt the compassion, you felt the humanity.  Such very small crinkles at the corner of each eye, yet they spoke of a lifetime of kindness.
Third on the list would be the rediscovery of the true meaning of some of our most commercial Christian holidays.  Every year spent here for Christmas and Easter, we have opened our home to near strangers less fortunate than us to partake in a traditional North American holiday meal, a prayer of thanks, and a laugh with us.  We've gotten to know some amazing people from the Philippines, from Ethiopia, from Sri Lanka, from Nepal.  While we miss our family so much, we've been so blessed to have these people come into our lives.  Kiddo always looks forward to the "after festivities", when we pack up containers of food and sweets and go visit compound security and maintenance staff.    
Fourth would be a deeper understanding of other faiths.  I am so grateful that we have had the chance to meet people of different cultures and religions who have been willing to share with us the meaning behind many of their practices, holidays and beliefs.  I really do feel like I've grown into a much more respectful and reflective human being by living here.
Fifth would be the understanding that at our core, we're not all that different after all.  The last company I worked for employed more than 80 nationalities.  While we might differ on work ethic, or procedure, or approach, there were always similarities (whether or not everyone would admit to them is another matter!).  But I have sat in a room and shared a laugh with Syrians, Egyptians, Columbians, Venezuelans, Americans, New Zealanders, Iranians, Qataris, Pakistanis, Philippinos, South Africans ...  I have commiserated with Scots, Australians, Indians, Nepalis, Malaysians, Sudanese, Spaniards ... I have shed tears with Ukranians, Brits, Dutch, Lebanese, Iraqis, Palestinians, Jordanians ... at some point in time, some or all of us have managed to find some point of commonality, some common bond.  The differences aren't so scary once you've gotten past the similarities!
So I guess that would be my long-winded partial answer to a question that I find so very hard to answer:  "What do you think about Qatar?"  
But the full answer is really hard to pin down.  What I'd really like to answer is closer to Tolkien's poem above.  And that's not really an answer.  More an impression, an interpretation:  
What would appear to impress us most in this land somehow leaves us rather indifferent.  What impresses us has nothing to do with glitter.  I am no more attached to Qatar for its architecture or its wealth than I am to Canada.  
My Canadian roots are strong, and I am an expat, not an immigrant, so I naturally find myself longing for my culture and my heritage. 
And one day, inevitably, I will return to the land that beckons.
We really are grateful for the opportunity to be here, and there are so many experiences to be had.  It's different for everyone I guess.  For us it's not the massive crystal chandeliers, the sky scrapers, the Versace boutiques, the Dammas jewelry shops or the multitude of Bentley's and Ferraris cruising the streets of Doha.  It's simply that we've built a life here for now, and collected the most amazing moments and friends and memories along the way.

The Difference in the ME ... (FAQ 3)

I often get asked about how life differs from Canada in the ME (Middle East).

There are so many differences, it's hard to even know where to start.  But a fellow blogger inspired me to lay out a few of the more obvious differences between life in Canada and life in Qatar through a mind mapping exercise.

It ended up being a lot of fun.  Before I knew it 3 hours had flown by!

Thanks Marianne Jeffrey.  

So here's my attempt at mind mapping the differences between life in Canada and life in Qatar:

Sometimes I wonder if my views of my life in Canada are enhanced by the rose-colored glasses I insist on wearing.

Sometimes I wonder if my views of my life in Canada are enhanced by the rose-colored glasses I insist on wearing.

You can link to Marianne Jeffrey's post by clicking below:

Frequent Questions About the ME ... Part II

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.