This is the first of few articles that tell about our experience in Doha, Qatar during the 6 months’ stay as a Fulbright scholar.The airplane takes off from Cairo Airport early in the morning heading towards Doha, Qatar. I am alone. My family will follow me in about one week. That will give me a chance to get things straight and ready for their arrival. I am excited about this trip and eager to see what the Gulf is like. I am a little anxious about what to do in case I do not find someone waiting for me at the airport. I have tried to get my address prior to arriving, but was told things will be ready when you arrive.
The plane lands and I feel a little more than the usual sense of urgency from those around me about leaving the plane. The airport looks very small, maybe the size of that in Knoxville. A bus meets the plane and I manage to get on the second bus. As we reach the terminal, things look clean and organized. In a few minutes, I pass the passport control, collect my luggage and exit the terminal hoping to find someone waiting for me. I see someone carrying a picture of me and feel relief.
The university sent someone from their external relations to meet me and the department sent an engineer as well. This is a good start. The external relations person greets me, points to a driver who will take me to my new home for the next few months, and quickly excuses himself. The other person chats with the driver and I understand that he will follow us to my to-be residence. My driver is an Indian, a Muslim, and speaks English with a heavy accent, but I can still partially understand what he says as we start our drive.
Doha, looks like a small city, I cannot see any high risers as we drive. The buildings are mostly white and yellow small buildings. I am a little disappointed, but I know I have seen high risers on the internet; I must be at the wrong side of town. I ask the driver whether he can help when my family arrives in a few days and he says that I have to talk to his boss. We arrive to a gated complex. It looks like it is still under construction; at least parts of it look this way. We park the car; a Qatari person approaches me, greeting me and points me towards a 2 story building.
My apartment is on the second floor, he says. “I thought I am supposed to live in a villa”, I question. He indicates that I would have to discuss that with QU. He quickly shows me around the apartment, stops at the kitchen and points out few basic items including milk and juice as hospitality items. My luggage is moved to the apartment. By a quick look I do not notice a phone in the apartment, so I ask about it. We submit a request to QTEL, the phone company, and it will be installed in few days. “How about the internet?” I ask. “It will come with the phone since it will be a dial up connection,” he points.
I kind of panic a little. I am in a new city without a phone, a car, or internet. What if I have an emergency, or need some food, or just want to see the city? The driver from the university leaves me with a promise to be back by 8 AM to take me to the university. The other individual who met me at the airport comes into the picture. I quickly get to know he is an Egyptian who has been working at QU for a few years. He offers to drive me to change currency to Qatari Riyal, buy a cell phone, and have lunch. This is an offer I could not refuse. I had no idea when my next meal will be!
We went to a shopping area made up of small stores and entered into a restaurant, Turkey Central, was its name. It did not look fancy, but the food was good and relatively cheap. A plate of grilled meat is around $6 and a large bottler of water is less than $1. No tip is necessary and there is no sales tax. For the first time in so many years, I can easily figure out the exact number on the bill, just add up your purchases.Afterwards we went into Al-Sadd Street where several outlets for foreign currency exchange are available. However, they were closed until 4 PM. I learned that many of these stores take a break from 1-3PM or 2-4PM. The exchange took only few minutes, but as I had seen in Egypt, people are so particular about the shape of the dollar bills. They may not accept bills with markings, tears, etc. that you would not notice in the US.
Next was a visit to QTEL to get a Hala card that would be inserted into my cell phone. This will allow me to purchase prepaid cards for my cell phone. Since I did not have a residency in Qatar, I was not allowed to get a regular cell phone or land line. The application too only few minutes. I paid a 100 Riyals for my cell phone number and now I am ready for purchasing a cell phone.My host drives me to Carrefour where I purchased a basic cell phone ($50).
I felt relieved. I have a way to contact the outside world. I learned the emergency number in Qatar is 999. The cost per minute for using the cell phone is 55 dirhams/minute (16 Cents/minute). QTEL is a monopoly so it is easy for them to keep the rates that high. This was the first thing that I missed from the states, an open market, where competition works in favor of the consumer. My host drives me back to my apartment. I thanked him for all his help and I am ready to spend my first night in Qatar.
Things are so quite around me. I think I am alone in the whole apartment building. With no TV or Internet or anyone to talk to, I turn to TV. There were hundreds of channels. Many were Arabic channels, many were European channels. I could not find any American channels that are not ciphered. To my big surprise, as I was going through the TV channels, I noticed some European channels soliciting phone sex with live nudity. It was so obscene; I thought to myself “I have to find a way to block these channels”. How was I going to let my kids flip through the TV channels without knowing what they will see?
This was the second thing I missed from the US: “Parental Control”. Something I did not expect to miss in a Muslim country like Qatar. I was surprised that the government would allow this to happen in a country where almost all the women I saw so far are all covered except for their eyes? Some will even cover their face completely with a black veil. This was one of the first signs of contradiction that I felt in Qatar.