At 7:30 a.m. on the second day of my journalism residency in Doha, Qatar, I was almost certain I was going to die. A taxi driver in a battered sedan pulled up for what was supposed to be a 45-minute drive to work. Immediately we were stuck in a classic Doha traffic jam. After about five minutes of bumper to bumper, my driver unexpectedly swerved off the road and into the desert. “What are you doing?” I wanted to scream. But I had become mute.
For several terrifying minutes we bounced over moguls of sand and rock, the car sputtering through treacherous crevices. As the car skidded back onto the main road, we turned into oncoming traffic and nearly hit a few pedestrians. We sped by overlapping construction sites populated by foreign workers in uniformly blue jumpsuits. I glimpsed Doha’s startling skyscrapers — the strange new jewels of the city that rise majestically from the sand. At 8:15 I arrived at work, hands sore from gripping the armrest.
I’ve lived in the suburbs of Chicago since I was 5 years old. In January I dived into the culture of a strange, sandy new land. I always felt I had control over my life; in Qatar I was at the mercy of those around me. Without a driver’s license or car, I relinquished my independence to cab drivers and kind friends. Doha has virtually no sidewalks, and residents don’t walk outside — ever. Whenever I decided to brave the heat and walk to the grocery store, about 20 minutes away, at least 10 cars slowed along the way to ask if I needed a ride.
Language, too, was a challenge. Unable to speak Arabic, Malayalam, Tagalog or the other myriad languages spoken in the nation, I could barely communicate. I interviewed people who spoke little English and even covered press conferences in Arabic.
In my three months in Doha I saw far more of the tiny Muslim country than any tourist. As a journalist I got to see beneath the surface of a nation known primarily for its wealth and oppressive heat.
I learned about cross-dressing Qatari girls, migrant labor abuse and the controversy over the Islamic face veil. I developed an addiction to shish taouk, a spicy yogurt chicken dish, and woke up to the call to prayer from the mosque near my apartment. I gazed at miles of desert outside my window, wandered through the endless stalls of the market — called Souq Waqif — and consumed preposterous amounts of hummus. I attended a Qatari sweet 16 party, danced at a traditional wedding and — of course — rode a camel.
Each day I was rarely certain about reaching work on time — if my car showed up at all — or finding a place to eat lunch. And although Doha is a small city, I constantly worried that I would not be able to find the location of my interviews, because no one uses street names. Locals give directions using building landmarks and names of roundabouts. Sometimes, as I directed someone on the phone, I heard myself and laughed inwardly. “Go straight past the second roundabout. You’ll see a huge pile of sand on your right. And a blue sign. Then you’ll see a petrol station with a poster of a horse. Turn left there.”
But finding my way through Doha was only half the battle. The other half was calming my inner alarm clock during interviews. Before I went to Qatar, I knew that time was more fluid in the Arab world. Tardiness is customary; a lengthy chat before “business” begins is typical. In America I measure the minutes of each activity meticulously. In Qatar I had to adjust to the rhythms of a different society.
Strangely enough, I began to like it. I learned more from the people around me when I slowed down. One day, for instance, I interviewed a minister from the Sri Lankan embassy. First he wanted to discuss America. More specifically, the Tiger Woods scandal. “How can he be addicted to sex?” he asked me. I blinked a few times, wondering if I had heard correctly through his thick accent. “He’s a man! All men need to have sex. If this is true, all men are addicted to sex!” He laughed loudly.
Then he turned the tables. “What do you know about Sri Lanka?” he asked me. My answer: not much. “I will teach you about Sri Lanka,” he said, revealing that he used to be a professor. At first, I hesitated. How long was this going to take? When would I be able to start this interview? But I stopped myself. How often did I get to learn about Sri Lanka from a native Sri Lankan?
The more I was able to let go, the happier I became, particularly when I finally understood that surrendering control is somewhat of a cultural norm in Qatar. This facet of the culture is aptly captured by the word Inshallah, or “God willing,” which expatriates and natives alike sprinkle on top of almost every statement. “I’ll call you tomorrow, Inshallah,” sources told me on numerous occasions. “I’ll be at my office for the interview, Inshallah.”
At first, I saw Inshallah as an infuriating sign of laziness, a shirking of responsibility. “Why can’t he just say he’ll be there for the interview tomorrow?” I wondered aloud to the women in my office. “Why can’t she tell me she will call me back? Why must everything be qualified with an Inshallah?”
I continued my grumbling about Inshallah until I spoke about it with an NU-Q student. It’s about accepting that God’s will is more powerful than your plans, she told me. Even though you might intend to do something, God may have something else in store. It’s about yielding to the unknown.
The desert makes places appear closer than they really are. All that flatness can create a mirage that you’re close to your destination — when really you’re miles away. You can never be sure how long it will take you to get there or what strange adventures you’ll encounter along the road. But that is the beauty of wandering through the sand. Inshallah, you’ll eventually find your way.