I never thought I would say this but sometimes I miss my life in the desert. I can almost see the puzzled looks and hear the confusion as I state this. Miss the desert? What on earth for? There was nothing there?
For me I found something in the nothingness, and like most things, it wasn’t until it was gone that I realised how much I missed it.
Life in Qatar was hard but not for the reasons most people would think. I know when most people think of the Middle East they conjure up strict sharia law and harsh Arabs with disapproving eyes towards Western life. But that wasn’t my experience of life in Qatar. The challenges were circumstantial to our situation not the country. And while it is true there isn’t much there, and there isn’t much to do… curious minds will find ways to be curious.
And so here are the things that I miss about my life in the desert.
1) Call to prayer
Ok I’ll admit, I’m starting off with a strange one. Call to prayer is broadcasted 5 times a day including during the early hours of the morning. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the sound when we moved to Qatar. We had just been dropped off in our new apartment. It was about midnight and we spent the next few hours unpacking a few things and discovering how our apartment worked. As we were ready to get into bed the silence of the night was pierced by the summoning call to prayer. And it remained a reminder that I was not at home.
While at times it was annoying as our apartment unit faced the mosque, it became a time keeper for my day. For example, the morning prayer to call was at times my alarm or (if I slept through it) an indicator of a good nights sleep. I would take a nap after work until the 3pm call to prayer. I tried to work out before the evening call to prayer. Life in the desert had its own metronome. And so my day was naturally organised for me and I sort of liked that.
2) Learning Arabic
When I first arrived in Qatar, everything felt foreign including hearing Arabic. I couldn’t identify any words, they were just sounds. But after a few months working with local Qatari children, they started to teach me Arabic. It was our trade off in the classroom and they loved sharing their language with me. I loved seeing their confidence grow as the role of teacher was reversed. I was soon able to hear Arabic words and interjected them in speech with the children occasionally. My favourite -Yalla- hurry up! I really miss learning another language and it would have been great to learn Arabic there as I would’ve been able to use it daily in my desert life. It’s these type of experiences you seek out when you move to another country.
3) Mint lemonade and karak tea
In most countries in the Middle East, the consumption of alcohol is haram- forbidden, unless in designated areas. To drink at home you need a liquor license, obtained with a letter from your employer and trips to the QDC (Qatar Distribution Centre). So when we were out and about, unless in a hotel, booze was off the table. We didn’t mind too much as we discovered other beverages to quench our thirst in the desert.
One of our favourites was mint lemonade. I’m literally salivating now thinking about the refreshing green drink with fresh mint, lemonade and probably a lot of sugar. While we always thought a drop of vodka or gin would’ve made it the perfect summer drink (old habits die slow!), it was still delicious as it was.
Karak tea was another treat I was introduced to by a colleague. I would buy the instant pouches from the shop which would have either cardamon, saffron or other exotic spices to complete the warm drink. Although, I have a few pouches left of karak tea but don’t want to use them until I know where I can get more. Yes they are like gold to me. The mint lemonade I’ve yet to find and it’s a drink best served fresh. I still miss both these drinks greatly.
4) The scent of Oud
This was another reminder I was in a foreign country. There is nothing more romantic when visiting a new place than being captivated by pleasant new scents and smells. Scents of sandalwood and musk, both woody and sweet would sneak up on you as you walked through a shopping centre or the souq. I loved it. Again it’s the little things that remind you that you are not at home. Oud is very strong and powerful. My husband bought some in the souq waqif once but it was a bust in our home as it was just too overpowering for our small place. We still have some left over. So maybe some day I can be surrounded by the smell again.
5) Cultural differences
Most advice for expats warn of the culture shock you can experience when you move to another country. The culture and customs aren’t the same. They do things differently.
When I moved to the Middle East, there was a lot that was different. Women had to cover their shoulders and knees (not hair though) and couldn’t make eye contact with other males ( seen as forward gesture). The driving was aggressive, mainly by young, bored Arabic men. The clothing for local people was different as Qataris wore abayas (for women) and thobes (for men).
I know other expats have different views on this but personally I liked these differences. It wasn’t my home. So while at times these things felt foreign and reminded me I would never feel at home there, I was never meant to make it my home. It was their home and their culture and I was privileged to be able to observe it and participate where possible. I was lucky to learn so much about it, working in a school with locals and I enjoyed this aspect of life in the Middle East. Not many expats have the opportunity to interact with locals as much as I did. For a culture that can sometimes be misunderstood, it was an experience I really cherish from my time there and sort of miss, despite its frustrations.
I knew some of these things would leave me pining when I left Qatar and I guess its proof in the pudding that somewhere along the way, the desert stole a bit of my heart.