Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Standing on a bridge

I've been in Qatar now for over 18 months and I find it hard to describe the impact this change has had on my life.  Being the end of the year and the end of another contract without the certainty of another yet again, I'm in reflective mood.  Those who know me  know all too well that I have sought to understand and embrace Arabic culture rather than continue my English life abroad.  My feeling being that a life seeking knowledge and cultural understanding is all the richer for it.  So I shrugged off my British reserve and resistance and opened my mind and my heart.

To quote from Muhammad Asad's extraordinary work 'The Road to Mecca', "when water lies motionless in a pool it becomes stale and muddy, but when it moves and flows, it becomes clear".  So too the heart and soul and indeed the mind of man.

So…. I have Arabic friends, I frequent the souq as my relaxation space of choice, I listen and dance to Arabic music, occasionally smoke shisha, drink karak or Moroccan mint tea rather than drink alcohol, I observe Ramadan, Ive travelled to Yemen, wear an abaya, wear a ghutra every weekend in the souq, share dinner with my friends, eat lambs livers in Yemeni restaurants with my hands, take an interest in the politics of the region and have philosophical debates with Muslim friends on the interpretation of the Quran and, of course, I'm learning Arabic.

But the change is not merely a physical one, of doing different things or superficially making some sort of token gesture to local culture.  Rather it is as if I'm absorbing the Arabian spirit through my senses.  This is not a conscious study (apart from the language of course).  This is an emotional and spiritual transformation and reaction to my new environment which started with the sounds of the call to prayer, a sound which millions before have heard, unchanged throughout the 1400 years since the birth of Islam. "Allāhu akbar. Allāhu akbar. Ash-hadu an-lā ilāha illā allāh." (God is the greatest, God is the greatest. I bear witness there is no God but Allah).  I'm lucky to be living in the older side of town (that's my hotel in the middle of the photo), surrounded by mosques  which 5 times a day broadcast the call.  One by one they join the chorus, the male vocals of the muezzin callers rolling across the city like a gentle wave.


It continued with the smells of the souq, from the aromatic spices of every kind to the heady aromas of shisha and oud. Then the scenes of young Arab men, dressed in perfectly pressed white thobes and flowing ghutras, dancing and laughing together, affectionate with one another.  The mass gatherings on Thursday and Friday nights to watch, listen and dance to the fabulous rhythms of the hand drums and tablas and sing along to the visiting vocalists from Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Yemen.


The lack of tension and the lightness of atmosphere, everyone revelling in the joy of each others company.  A lightness that perhaps comes from a feeling that there is something much bigger and more powerful than all this.   For so many in this region, there is a closer and more present relationship between life and death  A colleague at Al Jazeera once stated that Qatar has no soul.  Well my experience tells a different story. Qatar does have soul ….. for those willing to find it.

But there is a danger when one opens oneself to such fundamental change.  Now I find myself standing on the middle of a bridge between two worlds, neither at one end
or the other.  I can no longer see the beginning from where I came, nor can I see where I am headed.  Both are shrouded in mist.  Do I go back or continue forward?  This is not an easy place to be and some days I feel drawn to one end and then the other, with both ends pulling at me with an invisible force.  Of course one end offers the excitement of the unknown, the other offers the comfort of the familiar.

But this emotional push and pull is not for the faint hearted.  For now I must remain on the bridge, waiting for the mist to clear a little on the path ahead before I can move.  So I continue to quench my thirst for knowledge.  I hope to take a trip in the Jordanian desert, to further my knowledge of Islam and the life of the Prophet (may peace be upon him), and of course to improve my Arabic language… inshallah!!

I'm sure the mist will clear at some point….. but at which end of the bridge?

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