Barbie in Qatar

By Jheri St. James

Twin Towers and Sand Teapot in Doha

     “I live and work in Qatar from mid-Aug. to mid-June. I am a teacher at the American School of Doha. I would be happy to collect the soil for you if you can send the container to me.” (Monday, August 8, 2005)

The little empty carton travels from Lake Forest, California through Cincinnati Ohio, New York, New York, and Manama, Bahrain, to Doha, Qatar.

     “So far I have not received the package. Did you address it to the school? Perhaps it is slow in making its way to me. I will let you know of my receipt of the package, as well as when I send it off via DHL back to you. Is there any urgency for you to receive the package soon? If not, I can take a drive sometime in the next two weeks to a peculiar sand beach to collect the sample. Otherwise I can collect some generic soil from here in town . . . Within two weeks I will be able to drive to one of my favorite windsurfing beaches that is near an abandoned fishing village. I will sample the sand there and obtain some dig photos of the site for your use,” writes Dave.

     Gary replies: “Dave, we love digital photos for the journal section at the website. Soil from a location with history is great.”

     Time passes.

     Dave Schrall picks up the dirt from Al Wakra Beach near the historical fishing and pearl diving town and puts it in the box. (September 3, 2005) That little box of soil begins its return journey to Laguna Beach, CA on September 13, 2005 in the DHL facility at 8:19 p.m. from Doha, Qatar, and ends on September 16th at 8:24 a.m. in Hawthorne, California, USA, having transited Manama, Bahrain, London, United Kingdom, and New York, New York in two and a half days.

     And so goes the process of the Common Ground 191 project: one little box of sand, carrying within it intrinsic stories of place, people, history—to become part of Gary Simpson’s vision of one, unified earth, unlike any other ever created. This artistic melding of the soils of the planet is a contrived unity, to be sure, a symbolic unity—but unity. Swift transit of ancient soils; the art project grows slowly but inexorably.

* * *

     Qatar’s story is one of time and timelessness, like many of the ancient lands of the Persian Gulf region. Qatar is a peninsula located in the Middle East, slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, and bordering the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia. Mostly flat and barren desert, covered with loose sand and gravel, the traditional monarchy known as the State of Qatar ratified its constitution on the 29th of April 2003; endorsed by the Emir on June 9, 2004, it came into force on June 9, 2005.

Old Qatar (Dervish)

      Ruled by the Al Thani family since the mid-1800’s, Qatar transformed itself from a poor British protectorate noted mainly for pearling into an independent state with significant oil and natural gas revenues. After being dominated by Persians for thousands of years and recently by Bahrain, the Ottoman Turks and the British, Qatar became an independent state on September 3, 1971. During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the Qatari economy was crippled by a continuous siphoning off of petroleum revenues by the amir, who had ruled the country since 1972. His son, the current Amir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, overthrew him in a bloodless coup in 1995. Qatar subsequently resolved its longstanding border disputes with both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

      Oil and natural gas revenues enable Qatar to have one of the highest per capital incomes in the world. This tiny nation, which looks like a 100-mile out-thrust thumb hitchhiking on the huge Saudi Arabian continent, has achieved its own separate identity and personality, even though 95 percent of its people are Muslim, and Arabic is the official language; with Arabs making up 40%, Pakistani 18%, Indian 18% and Iranian 10% and other nationalities 10% of the population.

     Qatar is governed explicitly under Wahhabi law and the vast majority of its citizens follow this specific Islamic doctrine. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was the founder of Wahhabism, a puritanical version of Islam which takes a literal interpretation of the Koran and Sunna. In the 18th century, Abd Al-Wahhab forged authority with the Saudi Arabian al-Saud family and purged the “idolatrous” practices of Sufis and Shiite from the kingdom. Wahhabi Islam was imported from Saudi Arabia to Qatar in the early 20th century when the Al-Thanis realized that converting to the doctrine of their larger neighbor might bode well for regime survival. Perhaps as an effect of the importation, Wahhabism is not as strictly enforced in Qatar as in Saudi Arabia though it still governs a large portion of Qatari mores and rituals. For example, almost all Qatari women wear the black abaya as in Saudi Arabia, however the style is not ubiquitously imposed on foreigners.

     Although the peninsular landmass that makes up Qatar has sustained human development for thousands of years, for the bulk of its history the arid climate fostered only short-term settlements by nomadic tribes. Bearing tribal monikers such as the Al Khalifa and the al Said, that would later descend upon the thrones of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia respectively, these clans swept through the Arabain peninsula and camped on the costs within small fishing and pearling villages. The clans battled each other for lucrative oyster beds and lands, frequently forming and breaking coalitions with one another in

Wild Camels and Sand Dunes in Empty Southeast Quarter of
Qatar Jarayan Al Batmah

efforts for territorial supremacy. In the 1920’s and 1930’s Japanese cultured pearls entered the world market and Qatar’s pearling industry faltered. It was the discovery of oil, beginning in the 1940’s, that completely transformed the nation’s economy. Now the country has a high standard of living, with many social services offered to its citizens and all the amenities of any modern nation. Even Qatar’s flag has a feeling of forward motion, two-thirds red on the right, and one-third white on the left, a zigzagging line between the two colors giving a feeling of zooming full steam ahead.

The Pearl Statue, Doha

* * *

     For on-location commentary on Qatar, revealed some interesting facets of life in this old/new country. The online journal posted by Dervish entitled “Life in Exile: The Life and Times of an American Family in Qatar” narrated the reactions of Mr. Dervish and his family in their sometimes frustrating and sometimes amusing adventure. He says in “About Me” “Dervish is a deadhead who studies fiqh.”*

Fulla Dolls

     One of the observations he made regarded the dolls for sale in Qatar as compared to those in the West. “Fulla came about as a result of dissatisfaction with Barbie, and the values, or even the mindset, that she represents. To someone living here, Barbie isn’t considered an adequate role model for little girls. She represents much of what is thought to be wrong with modern culture and society. The problem stems from completely different attitudes here and in the west regarding privacy and modesty. In the west a woman’s beauty is public. The public in fact demands to be able to compare, sort and judge, based upon a woman’s appearance. Women are encouraged to look ‘pretty’, and wear the correct clothing and accoutrements to meet with public approval. Young women are especially vulnerable to the demands put upon them by society in regards to their appearance. In short, women in the west are required to put on a public show, as it were, and be judged thereby. Much of the clothing worn is designed to look sexy, and draw attention. I suppose that the one who draws the most attention wins. Barbie is often the first teacher that little western girls get in how to play this game.

     “Here privacy is the rule. A woman’s appearance is a private matter, and hers to control. A woman’s beauty isn’t a public commodity to be on display for all to see. Women here generally try to deflect attention from their appearance, rather than attract it. Modesty is reflected in the choice of dress adopted by most women in public. To be able to see a Qatari woman without her abaya (loose, opaque cloak) and niqab (head covering) is a privilege, not a right, and it’s a carefully administered privilege at that.

     “As a woman, it isn’t so difficult to see Qatari ladies in this way, it’s simply a matter of being invited to a social function, or to someone’s home, or possibly an everyday occurrence at work. As a man, seeing Qatari ladies without their traditional covering is fairly uncommon, although he may see them at work, or even in public (those who choose not to cover). To someone living here, Barbie, and what she represents is shallow and superficial. Women here would rather be judged by their conduct, piety, or intelligence than by their fashion sense. To be forced to compete on that level seems rather like being a piece of meat on display.

     “Thus Fulla came about. Fulla fits into all of Barbie’s clothes, although she has a full line of her own as well. Fulla likes Barbie’s clothes, in fact, and frequently wears them, but when she goes out to the souqs, or to work, she makes sure to put on her abaya and hijab. Fulla comes with a range of tastes as well. She needn’t wear an abaya, some sets include only a hijab, with the rest of the clothing being indistinguishable from modest western clothes. Other Fullas are very conservative, reflecting the varying standards and tastes in the Muslim world. The point is, that Fulla can reflect and preserve the values of the Gulf, whereas Barbie challenges them. Both are available here, and parents may choose which one they buy for their little girls.

     “The best doll I have seen in this category is a generic knock-off. She looks like Barbie, but is sold in a set where she is a physician. She comes with a lab coat over her clothes, and has a full range of equipment available with which to conduct physical exams. She can even collect lab specimens. In my opinion, that ‘Dr. Barbie’ presents a much better role model for young girls than the anorexic slave-to-fashion ever did.” (Dervish 5/29/05)

     Dervish also described a breastfeeding doll sold in Qatar. These are hand-made by a women’s group in Saudi Arabia to raise awareness about breastfeeding. The baby has a snap for a mouth, that snaps onto the mother’s snap breast. Breastfeeding rates in the Gulf are still pretty good, but they are falling as the economies modernize. This doll is part of an effort to slow or stop that trend.

Women’s Swimwear Models

     “Here are some pictures of swimsuits that I found on-line. These aren’t actually from Qatar, but you will see these here, especially among Arab ex-pats. My wife is having one brought back from Egypt. Wearing a get up like this isn’t necessary, but it does tend to cut down on the stare factor. Other ways that women deal with this problem are to swim in indoor women-only pools, to swim with an abaya covering the body (a bit impractical unless you’re just wading), to swim in remote locations far from prying eyes (best bet), or to forego swimming altogether. With even nighttime temperatures climbing into the thirties (C), this last option would be unfortunate.”

* * *

Some Qatari Musicians

     “Traditional dress for males consists of a thobe, elsewhere called a jilbab or jalabiyya. It’s a long-sleeved white garment reaching to few centimeters above the ankle. This is worn over white pants and a white T-shirt. Headgear is a gutra, a white or red-checked cloth, topped with an aqal or ring to keep it in place on the head. Nearly all Qatari men dress traditionally.” (Dervish 5/10/05)

     Qatar’s culture is based on Bedouin poetry, song and dance. Traditional dances in Doha, the capital, are performed on Friday afternoons; one such dance is the Ardah, a stylized martial dance performed by two rows of dancers who are accompanied by an array of percussion instruments, including al-ras (a large drum whose leather is heated by an open fire), tambourine and cymbals, along with small drums. Other instruments played in Qatar include the oud and rebaba, both string instruments, as well as the Arabian flute. The Qatari Golf Folklore Center is one of the preeminent centers for the study of the folk music of the Persian Gulf. Arab and Andalusian classical music are played in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Islamic, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, UAE, and Yemen, as well as in Arab communities world-wide.

     The dolls, the dress of these fascinating people, the music and dance—these are all elements of a place, a people, a history—and its soil. We here at Common Ground 191 celebrate all the countries from whom we have garnered soil for our art project, Qatar’s ancient, ambivalent sands included. Thank you, Mr. Dave Schrall for the little carton, and thank you Dervish, for your contributions to cultural understanding. Salaam.

* "Fiqh literally means, the true understanding of what is intended. An example of this usage can be found in the Prophet Muhammad's statement: "To whosever Allah wished good, he gives the Fiqh (true understanding) of the deen". Technically, however, fiqh refers to the science of deducing Islamic Laws from evidence found in the sources of Islamic law. By extension it also means the body of Islamic laws so deduced." -Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips in: 'The Evolution of Fiqh'



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