a collection of notes on areas of personal interest
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These notes were begun over thirty years ago and have been added to piecemeal since then – as has much of this site. The majority of notes have been made based on experience I have had in Qatar over a long period of time, and also from research made later. But I am less at ease with some of the aspects I have written about here as I can see there are a number of areas that need expanding for better understanding, others requiring introduction, and some of which I am a little unsure of but have left in as I wish to clarify them. There has been change in the region which has affected some issues, and I suspect there will be disagreement with some of the points I have made. The notes are placed here so that I will be encouraged to continue working on them and not let them sit in my papers unable to see the light of day.
I should also add that there are likely to be notes on other pages of this site that duplicate the notes here. At some time I will attempt to re-structure them. My main concern is that I don’t write conflicting versions of the same subject.
Much of what has been written on Qatari society in these notes relates to where and how they live and lived, while only a little has been written on the way the expatriate population lives. But more has to be understood when looking at the ways in which the lives of the total population are related to urban development. Generally these notes will avoid specialist comment on the manner in which a settled, national population relates to a volatile, expatriate population as I have not been able to find much on the subject. As a consequence any comments are likely to be anecdotal and based on observation and discussion.
Present Qatari society is based upon the traditional systems that have been described elsewhere. Essentially, the society represents an evolved tribal form that owes much to structures that have been imposed upon it through a number of influences relating mostly to Britain and its administration of the foreign territories under its control or persuasion. This can be seen particularly in its developed administrative and institutional frameworks, either directly or indirectly.
The traditional society referred to dates back to pre-Islamic times and applies not just to the Qatar peninsula but to the whole of the Arabian peninsula. Many of the families in Qatar are related to families in other parts of the area and the families, or tribes, are the largest social institution remaining in the area. The importance of this is that many of the traditional rights and customs still obtain in Qatar and, or course, elsewhere in the region.
Societies develop their initial institutions as a result of internal and external pressures developing within or placed upon them. However, there are a number of difficulties in examining the various elements of the developed society as the extent to which each element develops does not necessarily reflect the factors which affect it in degree or type. For instance, Westerners can see in Qatar what appear to be the relatively normal administrative systems they might recognise at home. These are obviously imported, yet experience with the systems demonstrates that they do not necessarily operate in the manner that Westerners fully comprehend. For this reason I have elected to look here at characteristic elements of the society taking benefit from socio-cultural studies made some time ago together with my experiences in Qatar.
One of the great difficulties relating to reviewing societies other than our own is that of cultural appropriation. This affects not only the way we perceive other cultures, but also how we identify issues and define actions to pursue which we consider might benefit them. Much has been written about this issue, and it is not my intention to make recommendations here, but to try to identify some of the characteristics that might interest or benefit a Western reader.
Qatari society is under pressure from many influences, and it is to their credit that changes have not been more dramatic. The rate of change has been fast bearing in mind that the development of oil and the beginning of Qatar’s real exposure to the West only began with the discovery of oil in 1939, effectively the late fifties due to the intervening World War and its aftermath. It seems to me that the greatest pressure has been exerted on the cohesion of the family as the institutions that are now established, particularly government, administration and the environmental setting of society are replicas in many respects of systems that exist in the West, none of which replicate any of the institutions established under or before Islam. Qatari society has had to develop a series of responses to deal with the day-by-day changes imposed upon it by the adoption of foreign socio-economic and socio-cultural systems and their concomitant influences and effects. These are not always successful.
Society is in a perpetual state of developmental flux with a complex set of problems to be faced on a daily basis affecting and moderating behaviour. In particular it appears that Qataris, having begun an exciting period of exposure to wealth in the seventies, are now realising that despite this wealth they are not in complete command of their own fortunes. A daily reminder of this is the large and visible percentage of expatriates upon whom the State is dependent. Their presence and behaviour also creates potential conflict with the rôle of Islam over Qataris bearing in mind that many of the expatriates are not followers of the character of Islam followed by most Qataris. How they will reconcile themselves to the new apportioning of wealth created within this short period of development is uncertain, but it is evident that there have been decisions to develop an infrastructure and facilities that will benefit the majority of Qataris while expanding the State’s profile into the new tourism and leisure market. Not only this, but Qataris are also extremely aware of the influence they are now wielding internationally.
Ironically, exposure to the influences and the concomitant benefits and disbenefits of the West contributes to reinforcing Western concepts such as democracy within Qatari society, but has also served to strengthen the practice and controls of Islam. A more visible example can be seen in Turkey where Kamal Ataturk’s initiatives are now coming under examination, if not attack, by those who believe the State should turn towards Islam, his concept of a secular society coming under pressure from its Muslim population and, particularly, those who have taken it upon themselves to speak for it. Ramifications of this view are likely to be seen in a variety of issues, perhaps most visible the role of women and freedoms generally, not just in Turkey but also within other parts of the Arab world including, of course, the Gulf.
It is also worth noting that the Arab Spring of 2010 has had little or no overt reflection in Qatar, though nearby Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have both felt the pressures of changes in the region.
Related to this, a few more notes have been made relating to emancipation, voting changes and other issues on the page dealing with pressures on the society.
As you might anticipate, Arabic is the language spoken by the native population of Qatar. It is the language of the Arabian peninsula and the north areas of the Gulf, though the form of Arabic used in Qatar is often referred to as Gulf Arabic. However, it is not generally appreciated by visitors that there are considerable linguistic variations of Arabic spoken by Qataris, bearing in mind the relatively small size of its land mass and native population.
To a large extent this is due to centuries of movement around the Arabian peninsula that have brought together people with different ethnic roots. The main types of Qatari Arabic are considered by Qataris to be distinguished between people from badu or hadhar backgrounds. It is also believed that there is more consistency in the Arabic of those with hadhar roots, but that there is considerable diversity in those of badu stock. In fact it is often possible to learn a person’s tribe by listening for only a short period of time. This can also be reinforced by their dress, an issue that is looked at elsewhere. A note can be found on the badu on the page looking at the history of Qatar.
One element of the language relates to the use of tanween. Classical Arabic uses tanween to illustrate or form different cases for irregular nouns. This has also been an aspect of the Gulf forms of Arabic but, while the dialects of the peninsula can still be understood as having resonance with other parts of the Gulf, the fact is that there is a diminishing of the dialectical tanween that characterised Qatari dialects, particularly those of the badu.
This reduction in the scope of the language might be seen to be similar to languages in other parts of the world where increased mobility and media pressure are creating changes rapidly both in reducing vocabulary and standardising pronunciation. It will be interesting to see how the significant introduction of expatriates, now comprising a large proportion of the population, might affect this. As an aside it is worth noting that a large number of Dubai nationals are said to be moving to other parts of the Emirates, ostensibly to avoid the internationalisation of Dubai – which suggests an attempt to maintain their roots. This is, of course, not possible in Qatar.
Due to the preponderance of expatriates in the peninsula, a large number of other languages can be heard. Many people speak a number of languages of necessity, though with varying degrees of fluency. While English may be understood if not used by many Qataris, they are also likely to be familiar with a number of the languages of the Indian sub-continent and Iran as well as some of the European languages. Yet there are problems associated with this.
One of the unfortunate aspects of the introduction of expatriates into Qatari homes must be that of having servants who speak their version of English to the children of the household, creating poor levels of grammar, phrasing and pronunciation at an impressionable age, characteristics that carry through to later life.
In addition to this there are a number of initiatives from foreign nationals and agencies to introduce or press their own languages on Qataris in order to obtain advantages for a variety of national, commercial and personal interests.
more to be written…
Before discussing the ways in which we experience urban spaces, it should be borne in mind that academic views continue to develop with the efforts to bring more of a scientific approach to the study of urban design. The writings of commentators in the 1960s had a considerable affect on those training to work in the urban environment. But now, the work of these traditional urban design commentators is coming under increasingly critical comment as methods to devise a more rational or scientific basis for its study are pursued.
In particulara, four writers on urban design can be thought to have influenced a generation of urban designers and those with an interest in analysing, with a view to improving, the spaces around and within which we move in our daily business. Kevin Lynch, Jane Jacobs, Gordon Cullen and Christopher Alexander have made considerable contributions to the way we look at the urban spaces around us, but their views are now considered to have little scientific underpinning. Cullen’s writings, particularly, were not underlain with a rigorous methodolgy, but were dependent upon a discursive treatment of his intuitive observations. In this sense they may be viewed as a philosophical approach, analysing existing situations from his developed perspectives with a view to enabling improvements in our understanding and creation of urban spaces. These four works, particularly, had a strong influence on architects, planners, sociologists and others in the 1960s onwards having an interest in our urban experiences.
But it is difficult to find a rational way to examine what we see around us as it involves so many differing components. We experience urban spaces through the interactions of the different groupings of those who comprise society in its wider sense. Simplistically, this society may be defined in many ways which might include, but not be limited to race, religion, age, education, gender, nationality and a variety of other categories by which we differentiate people. When the Qatari population was relatively small the way in which the society organised itself and enjoyed urban spaces is likely to have been very different from how it has now developed; the national population is now a significant minority, considerable wealth has altered the way in which people are brought up and live, and the organisation of social structures has developed in a manner heavily shaped by a wide variety of external influences.
This image illustrates something of the extraordinary contrast between the traditional streets of Doha, illustrated above, and the Western influenced architecture of the modern streets of the New District of Doha. It is a dramatic change from a pedestrian to a vehicular-based experience which we commonly consider to be visual, but which is anything but. The change alters, among other things, the effects on the senses we use to develop a comprehension of what is happening around us. Sounds, smells and temperature fluctuations all help create our experience of the spaces around us. Bear in mind that what is illustrated here is, at the most, a visual reminder of the change which has happened over only two generations.
The social networks which have developed rely on the appropriation of urban spaces, a process which has implicit within it elements of segregation and social inequality. Access to facilities requires wealth, mobility and, in many cases, permission – implicit or formal. Encounters are made in a variety of spaces relating to where people live, their access to transport, retail, commercial, educational, leisure and other activities which relate to their living pattern. These encounters may be accidental or result from work and cultural patterns and might be envisaged as a complex series of grids operating, generally, within the built environment – and not always, or even, coincident.
One of the key points to bear in mind when considering the way in which urban spaces are experienced in Qatar, is that much of the society has an unusual component in its transient nature. The majority of the population has no roots in the country, comes from elsewhere and will return there. It is difficult for them to feel at home as they are, in a very real sense, there only by courtesy of the nationals and may be required to leave conditions that may seem arbitrary to them. Expressed differently, many will feel they have little or no control over their stay in the country. As expatriates they are there to work and earn money to support themselves and their families, together with whatever financial and other goals they may have.
Elsewhere i have noted the transient nature of the commercial architecture which, in some respects, has been reflected in residential buildings. But the commercial buildings are those which many are drawn to, particularly in their out-of-work hours when it is common to travel to the malls and other commercial outlets where most will experience a different lifestyle from that they will have enjoyed in their home country. Koolhaas’ view is that this architecture has much in common with airport architecture where retail outlets vie with each other to catch passing trade as best they can.
The experience of travelling to the malls for most will involve private or public transport and in many respects is similar to the ordinary shopping trips made to purchase groceries and the like. But in Qatar grocery shopping is now often made elsewhere and the trips to malls usually have an added element to them in that there is an expectation of entertainment through observation, meeting with friends and the common experience of sharing with others the commercial spaces created to trap, entertain and, hopefully attract purchasers. There has always been a voyeuristic character to some of the fora in which residents meet. In fact sometimes this has caused problems resulting in some groups being excluded from certain public areas, the first of these being the airport which was a great attraction in the early 1970s.
These spaces rely on strong colour, lighting, sound and, often, blended smells to attract and retain interest. They enervate by design but, when empty, are desolate places where, if you are allowed by security personnel to enter, radiate discomfort. Surrounded by parking at grade, they occupy considerable space, extending roads and driving distances.
The malls are mostly contrived designs, many of them relying on considerable artifice and design effect to create spaces which are specifically set designs. They replicate traditional streets with continuously glazed frontages where the individual units vie with each other to attract custom. In this respect they are difficult to judge as urban design as many of the elements of traditional street design are missing. They are urban and they are designed, but they have little to do with traditional urban design.
sequence of spaces from home to mall or shopping
spaces around buildings other than malls
security and issues related to enjoyment of space
more to be written…
Before moving on to notes relating to Qatari society, it might be useful to comment here on the meaning of community in Qatar, particularly in its relationship with neighbourhood. Its importance here lies not so much in the traditional physical grouping of the neighbourhood, but with its new forms resulting from tabula rasadevelopment. Additionally it is necessary to understand a little more of how community is seen in Qatar compared with our understanding of it in the West.
Traditionally many Qataris might be considered, simplistically, to having lived in a hierarchical set of proximities relating to family and occupation. These proximities came about through natural expansion of families, the neighbourhoods generally being associated with a single family group or qabila such as the al-Hitmi, al-Salata qabaa’il who lived on the coast to the east of the centre of Doha and south of the palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim al-Thani. The qabila might be thought of in similar terms to a Scottish clan.
The point of this is that neighbourhood and community were coincident, the families having grown up in the same area which expanded to include their increasing numbers. There was no need for families to move away from the neighbourhood in which they grew up, and the character of marriage choices ensured that inter-family links were strengthened within the same geographical location. Thus the neighbourhood contained a community with shared values underwritten by its roots in Islam.
A neighbourhood can be thought to be a physical area with definable boundaries in which people share common practices. These practices are generally complementary and enable those living there to do so with a degree of psychological and physical assurance with which can come benefits of familiarity, ease and safety, but can also develop strong feelings of identity and territoriality.
The developing of the country to higher physical standards can be considered to have begun in the 1950s with the introduction of new road patterns and the concomitant installation of utility systems and improved building standards onto an enlarging urban footprint. The burgeoning population – both expatriates and nationals – required more housing and this was taken to mean that the old building structures with their associated movement corridors were demolished and the inhabitants moved to new neighbourhoods on the periphery of the existing conurbations.
Here new neighbourhoods were established but not always with the geographic relationships which had previously existed, though there were some exceptions. The al-Sulaiti family, for instance, were moved to a new site where they selected the physical relationships between their new houses, albeit within the framework of the plan laid out for them. In many ways this process of resettlement reflected the issues relating to upward mobility and communication noted in classic studies, but there are at least two crucial differences, and those are the shared common heritage of the peninsula and the over-arching imperative of religion.
While there are a number of arguments put forward in various parts of these notes for maintaining socio-cultural links, these are generally assumed to be physical or related to proximity. However, it might be that anonymous urban areas may well suit many, particularly those who are expatriates and anticipate being in the country only a relatively short time before wanting, or having, to move on. Their social links may depend more on the location of their work place, the character of work in which they are involved, and a variety of factors relating to their cultural heritage such as nationality, religion, education and age. There is a feeling of rootlessness which characterises these new neighbourhoods where expatriates live, some of these areas also including nationals. This feeling may seem to fit well with the character of the shopping malls and other areas used not just for shopping, but also for passive recreation.
The pattern of social networks that are established in these different areas, or urban and non-urban spaces, are sets of open relationships between people operating under a variety of conditions. These will vary in ways relating to the appropriation of urban spaces by groups depending upon nationality, wealth, mobility, access to transportation, work habits, free time, age, gender and so on. Within these networks encounters will be formed in both dispersed, or accidental, and polarised ways which develop the socio-cultural systems defining the societies within Qatar.
It is important to understand that Qatar, and the Gulf States generally, have an unusual socio-cultural mix, with their residents having a different range of hopes and expectations than many in the West might understand.
more to be written…
There are notes elsewhere on this site which relate to the origins of Qatari society which it might be useful to read along with these notes. In particular that which sets out something of the manner in which the tribes were organised. It is important to understand the basic divisions within which Qataris settled the peninsula as this continues to have an effect on the way they see themselves and, in varying degrees, how decisions are made. As mentioned above, present Qatari society has evolved from these traditional systems which have their origins in the regions around the peninsula.
The qabila is the name given to the family groups or tribes who, in the main, arrived from the Saudi hinterland. It is the name by which the main families distinguish themselves, and that which ranks them both against other qabaa’il and against those whose origins lie elsewhere.
The importance of the main tribes are not to be underestimated. They are ranked, not just in Qatar, but along at least the eastern seaboard of Saudi Arabia, by the purity of their origins, a characteristic derived from their patrilineal descent and intermarriage within the qabila. That is not to say that marriage does not occur outside the qabila but, when it does, it will be to a partner from a similarly placed qabila, many of these marriages being political in its wider sense. It should be understood from this that marriage outside the qabila is not encouraged, and that those who are not fortunate enough to belong to a qabila can be thought to be at a social disadvantage. According to some sources people falling into this category are grouped together under the pejorative term bayaasira, a collective noun whose origin is difficult to determine.
The hierarchical nature of society was based on the mainland tribes though, in the areas of ports, there was another character of status established along different lines, notably commercial, but still influenced by the qabaa’il whose life was centred around their camels. But by the eighteenth century, a series of droughts created a more permanent relationship between these tribes and the Qatar peninsula, in turn influencing to a greater extent the social hierarchies existing in the ports. The creation of the State and its associated bureaucracies has influenced this further.
The bayaasira are said to include a variety of people whose origins are not as ‘pure’ as those who can trace their roots to the main tribes of the hinterland. This includes those who may have originated in Persia together with people who travelled between the two sides of the Gulf, as well as others whose roots are unknown. Those with an interest in the complexities of this area of the society might like to investigate the terms hawwalah and baharnah and their relationships with sunni and shi’ite strands of Islam. There is a further brief note on the page looking at the history of the area.
The moral values which have come down to the present are based on the relationships between the strong and the weak. In this sense the warriors were seen to be the protectors of the weak, the latter being characterised as protected and forbidden from fighting, and upon whom taxes were levied by the qabaa’il. Although much of what is known by the people themselves has come down as verbal narrative within each qabila, this became a more common history in the nineteenth century where the waves of settlement became more involved with the increasingly valuable pearl industry, and the mounting pressures to settle reduced the conceptual importance of the traditional badawi warrior.
It is not easy to untangle the different strands which have made up the social framework of Qatar society. As an example, two qabaa’il, the al-Sulaiti and al-Muhannadi were argued to be hawwalah but associated with the ruling family and, in fact, fought on their side in the tribal coalitions of 1938. But the al-Muhannidi are linked to the Bani Hajri, and the al-Sulaiti to the Bani Malik, respectively of eastern and central Saudi Arabia.
One distinction between families of the hawwalah and those of the major qabaa’il is that the former value the introduction of foreign wives into the families, a characteristic of families of Iranian origin. Otherwise their values were very similar to those of the qabaa’il, relying on marriage within their own group, hospitality, solidarity and a code of honour.
The above relates mainly to those coming from the two sides of the Gulf, but other nationalities were drawn into the peninsula. In particular, Arab merchants consolidated their trade links by taking wives from the Indian sub-continent. In contrast with this, few Indians settled in the peninsula, despite the protection they would have received under the British protectorate. This may have been the result of the antipathy with which they were treated by certain qabaa’il, but conversely, foreigners would have been able to claim the protection of one of the shyuwkh governing the area in which he settled, in this case, the peninsula. The importance of nationality grew with the oil companies introducing a requirement for a statement of nationality, this bringing in rules for determining whether or not an individual was a national. Increasingly, the issue of nationality became bound up with commercial interests.
According to the value system of the qabaa’il, trading as a merchant was dishonourable or shameful. Nevertheless some of the qabaa’il derived wealth from commerce, in the first instance from the pearl trade, slaves and weapons with the trade being managed in their majaalis in order to distinguish that activity from those being carried out in the dukaakeen of the suq by traders. But external crises had a severe impact on the peninsula. The international crisis of 1929 was followed by the impact of cultured Japanese pearls and then the Second World War. These difficulties resulted in mass emigration from Qatar. Although oil was discovered in 1939, it was not until 1947 that it came on stream.
The involvement in business was also governed by differences in social values between those in the qabaa’il and the merchant class. The latter were concerned to run efficient businesses, make money and both save and invest to ensure greater returns. But the traditional values of the desert saw the appropriation of wealth as a resource from which to be able to distribute to others, a central tenet of badu life. Nevertheless there was a close interaction between the al-Thani and two merchant families who owed their success to this relationship, the Darwish and al-Mana, respectively related to those known as the Bani Khadir and hawwalah. Despite this, it is notable that there was no intermarriage between the al-Thani and the merchants. This interdependence lasted until foreign partnerships became an increasing reality in the peninsula.
It should be noted that the al-Thani generally marry within their own qabila and it is only the from the al-Attiyah and al-Misnad qabaa’il that they will otherwise take wives in marriage, a practice which strongly binds those two qabaa’il politically to them.
Commerce was increasingly important in the reduced circumstances of the Second World War and saw an increase in the reporting of smuggling through the peninsula. Not only was there to be money made through these activities but the prominent merchants had become involved, first with the oil industry in Iran, and then with that in Qatar, these activities forming stronger bonds between the traditional and merchant societies, as well as greater returns. Originally the Gulf Arab merchants operated in urban areas as pearl merchants, smugglers and traders, but this developed into areas such as banking, automobile and produce sales, property and publication.
The changing situation brought about by the commercial activities saw, in 1950, the increased politicising of the al-Thani family, all male members adopting the title ‘shaikh’, a title previously confirmed upon the head of a qabila. At the same time they were accorded a monthly stipend. These initiatives had the effect of creating a political élite that was a significant change from the socio-cultural traditions of the peninsula.
In 1949, at the beginning of the oil industry’s activities in Qatar, strikes were initiated by staff living in al-Bida’ and Doha who wanted to improve their wages. It was felt that hawwalah qataris were only employed as clerks, tea boys, labourers or guards, the latter being of badu stock. This distinction was argued to be a result of the lack of education, but it was keenly resented that foreigners should be taking up valuable positions. The al-Thani family supported the strike in order for Qataris to obtain both training as well as better wages. In 1955 it was agreed to give jobs by preference to Qataris and, in 1956 it was confirmed that foreigners would not be allowed to start businesses without prior permission.
These issues had the effect of creating a nationalist movement within the country. Although there was an anti-British element, it appeared not to call for their withdrawal. At the same time there were nationalist movements in other Arab states, notably Egypt with, probably, some interaction between them. In 1961 the concept of national identity became a reality with a law enacted and, in the following year another law confirmed preference to be given to nationals, but the nationalist movement died out in 1963 with the emigration of its leading members. In 1962, slavery was abolished in Qatar as the country continued to move its socio-political organisations forward.
In 1970, a consultative council was established, the majlis al-shura, its purpose being to have representative members of society make recommendations to the Ministerial Cabinet on proposed legislation, approval of the national budget, and monitoring the performance of ministers. It is probable that being a merchant is a requirement for admission to the majlis al-shura, but it is notable that the preponderance of members belong to qabaa’il.
While the innovations and changes mentioned above have helped to develop the society into something very different from its socio-cultural traditions, change continues. One of the chief mechanisms for this is education. Members of the hawwalah were most likely to recognise the importance of education and the resulting opportunities for employment. Much of this would have been in their own organisations, but they would have recognised the increasing opportunities for working with government as the institutions of government were introduced and developed.
The 1950s and 1960s saw the first appearance of printing presses, libraries and the founding of clubs, al-Jasra being the first. But all these institutions introduced socio-political problems that had to be resolved in a manner which would maintain the status quo. The increasing numbers of graduates now saw more from the qabaa’il replacing those from the hawwalah who had been able to enjoy promotion from their earlier education. In a sense, this reflected a development of the traditional social order.
What has been written above describes something of the natural consequences of state formation and the rise of nationalism. The differences between the people of qabaa’il and hawwalah origins matches what some ascribe to be the scale of rivalry between the larger influences on the region, Saudi Arabia and Persia, now Iran, and this is argued to continue into the present day. Bear in mind that the Gulf States have been formed over a relatively short period and that there were significant difficulties faced by those attempting to create a national identity within a region where the boundaries were and are sometimes difficult to understand. Linguistic, religious, mercantile and migratory patterns all link people within the region, and this holds true despite the apparent differences and enmities.
On a couple of socio-cultural aspects of the above, a socio- anthropologist has suggested that there are two elements which are important in distinguishing the people of the peninsula. The first is the shisha or guidu, the water pipe smoked in the suq. The guidu is made of earthenware and is imported from Iran and can be compared with the jraq, a tall water pipe originating in southern Arabia, a metal version of it being smoked in Doha’s suq in this first photograph taken in April 1972. It is suggested that the people of the baharnah are more likely to have in their homes a guidu, and that this would also be commonly found in the suq. The latter was certainly the case, most often seen in the older part of the suq, the lower photograph showing one of the merchants in Doha’s old suq sitting and smoking one in November 1972.
The second item held as being characteristic of the divide between those of the baharna and qabaa’il, is the iqal, the coiled black rope used to hold down the qutra, and which is stated as not being used by people of the baharna. My observation is that the qutra is worn loose draped over the head without an iqal, or wound tight around the head as is shown on this photograph, taken in the fish market in April 1977. It is suggested that the reason for not wearing the iqal is that that the iqal represents a value of the honour systems of the qabaa’il who would wear it as a mark of distinction.
If one strand in the development of Qatari society can be taken to be the socio-cultural aspects associated with family and tribe, described above, the other strand would be religion. Qatar is strongly associated with the religious teachings of the eighteenth century Najd theologian, Muhammad ibn ’abd al-Wahab. Concerned with what he saw as moral decline in the Arabian peninsula, he sought a return to an earlier character of Islam which he considered to be a more pure form, untainted by later interpretations. In this he was backed by the powerful House of Muhammad bin Saud, and this connection might be considered to have a significant influence on the character of Islam practised in Qatar.
Elsewhere I have written about the effect of this on the early architecture of the peninsula, arguing that it led to the design and construction of buildings that were simple and clean in their lines, even austere, and with relatively short manaaraat. Decoration was eschewed and both byoot and masaajid might be seen pared down to their essential elements sufficient to provide protection for living and worship. Of course those who settled in the peninsula lived a relatively frugal life and it might be argued that this would have been a significant influence on their architecture, but in other areas of the Arab world the lack of funds did not prevent a significant degree of decoration to embellish masaajid.
The lives of those living in the peninsula were governed, then, both by the tribal traditions as well as by their religion, Islam. I am not sure how to state it but suspect that the introduction of different religions to the peninsula came only relatively recently, and that all those living in, as well as moving in and out of the peninsula, were Muslims with a majority being sunni. If that was so, then the predominant character of those living there would have been quiet and sedate within an all-embracing socio-cultural and religious structure creating a significantly stable population.
Events have overtaken this society which is now in a minority with the dramatic increase in expatriates, notably for the labour market. But many of these are Muslim and share the need to follow the tenets of Islam, one of them being the desire or need to embark on the hajj at least once in their life. For many expatriates, their work in Qatar has brought them nearer to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, making it a shorter distance to travel. There have always been organisations of different degrees of sophistication helping Muslims make the hajj. In this photograph, taken in January 1974, a group of Muslim labourers are seen assembling in front of the Diwan al-Amiri – a process that might take several days – prior to moving off through Salwa to the holy cities in their lorries and trucks, camping on the way by the side of the road as will have been the practice for centuries.
The extent to which Qatari society might be thought to be moving towards similarities with Western societies is difficult to determine. Most of the accessible writings on the structure of Arab societies have been written by Westerners and from a Western perspective. Increasing familiarity by Westerners who come into contact with Qataris in Qatar seem to suggest that there is a progressive move towards some form of parity, or at least accommodation with, their societies and Qatari society. And it might be thought that the writings of Ibn Khaldun support this idea.
A recent paper suggests that this is far from the case. Ibn Khaldun suggested that civilisations developed within themselves the elements necessary for their own destruction. He believed that as people acquired wealth, luxuries and more sedentary habits, their ’asabiyyah was weakened as social structures moved to consolidate power while allowing peripheral organisations to develop in conflict with them. This is not the finding of the previously mentioned paper.
Although Qataris are now overwhelmingly urban in character, tribalism appears to be strengthening with a surprising correlation with higher education levels though, as might be anticipated, with a strong correlation with tribal residential areas – for instance, furuwq such as al-Hitmi and al-Salata.
But the paper goes on to note the heterogeneous character of the Qatari population, noting its linkages with the surrounding geography. In an interview with one of the al-Murrah tribe, the interviewee suggested that there were seven strands to Qatari nationality. In no particular order, he noted:
The authors suggest that slaves from Africa might be added, but noted that they are likely to have been assimilated into the social structures listed above. They also emphasise that this is one Qatari’s view and might be refined with distinctions made on at least religion, ethnicity and culture.
They suggest that the state is now an important driver for redefining nationality with respect to tribal linkages, and that the power to be derived from large tribal groups leads to the strengthening of tribal and individual positions with respect to the state and government.
more to be written…
During the last two centuries most of the Arabian peninsula, with the influence or assistance of colonial powers, came to be ruled by tribal families – Saudi Arabia by the al-Saud family, Bahrein by the al-Khalifa, Kuwait by the al-Sabah, Oman by the al bu Sa’id, Dubai by the al-Maktoum, Abu Dhabi by the al-Nahayyan, Ajman by the al-Na’im, Umm al Quwain by the al-’Ali, Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah by the al-Qasimi, Fujaira by the al-Sharqi and Qatar by the al-Thani. All these families belong to the sunni branch of Islam, and do not always represent the majority when compared with the sh’ia component of their national populations. While this common heritage appears to be a source of strength to hereditary ruling families within the Gulf, it masks a variety of internal pressures.
The notes above, some here and here on the history page, and others looking at population statistics, give something of the background to the way in which Qatar developed, and how the al-Thani are grouped socially. But it might be useful to look at other aspects relating to their position as the ruling family of Qatar.
The al-Thani qabila came to pre-eminence in the nineteenth century and as such were responsible for making treaties with the British which, among other things, established their boundaries and, by extension, legitimised their ownership of the enclosed land and their rule within it.
Their more recent history, that falling within the latter part of the twentieth century, has been governed by the efforts to bring the country into meaningful relationships with the West and to benefit nationals with the increasing wealth flowing from the discovery of oil and gas reserves. Prior to independence Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah, ruler from August 1948 to October 1960, and Sheikh Ahmed bin Ali, ruler from October 1960 to February 1972 were thought to have had little interest in developing the structures necessary for developing the country. Although a provisional constitution was promulgated in April 1970, the institution of the first Council of Ministers a month later, and independence from Britain declared in September 1971, there were increasing tensions within the country resulting in Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad assuming power in February 1972.
Sheikh Khalifa had, in effect, been running the country since 1948 when he was named as heir apparent to Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah. As Prime Minister he had additional influence with his portfolio of ministries or departments of foreign affairs, finance and petroleum, education and culture, and police and internal security. However, his position as heir apparent was severely undermined with the nomination of Sheikh Ahmed bin Ali as ruler. Nevertheless, he continued to develop a more modern basis for the State with assistance being provided through the British government in the form of advisors, even though this was resisted by Sheikh Ali and then Sheikh Ahmed whose administration of the country continued to be based on the traditional majlis system, focussed on the al-Thani family.
The United States Library of Congress notes that opposition to the British and to perceived excesses of some members of the al-Thani family were marked in 1956 with street demonstrations. One of the results of this was the distribution to one hundred and fifty male members of the al-Thani family of disbursements from Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah with additional grants of land and positions in government. While mollifying some, it irritated other members of the al-Thani family as well as Qataris who were not family members.
The difficulties simmering within the family eventually saw Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah abdicate in 1960 and handing over to his son, Sheikh Ahmed bin Ali. But Sheikh Ahmed continued in similar vein, increasing disbursements to the al-Thani family at the expense of development projects and social services while continuing the practice of distributing government positions. This brought about a strike and demonstrations by the National Unity Front in April 1963 who demanded reductions in Sheikh Ahmed’s powers, and benefits given to Qataris who were not members of the al-Thani family.
Against this background, Sheikh Khalifa continued to develop the infrastructure, expanding the bureaucracy, much of it with expatriates. But he and Sheikh Ahmed disagreed on many issues with the latter spending considerable time out of the country and becoming increasingly profligate with funds coming into the State from the oil revenues. It was reported that Sheikh Ahmed drawing a quarter, and the entire al-Thani family between a third and a half, of Qatar’s oil revenues in 1971. Other rumours were that he took a third and the family a second third of the revenues and that all male members of the al-Thani family were given a monthly stipend. Whether the latter was a function of the former, I can’t say, nor can I state what that stipend might have been.
While this might seem extraordinary to a Western mind, it has to be borne in mind that much of this wealth would have been disbursed not just among members of the al-Thani family, but also to others. Generosity was and remains an Arabic characteristic and those who were in need would have asked and generally been given assistance by those with wealth – if for no other reason than that the latter would have lost face by refusing. It should also be understood that many members of the al-Thani family were in business with merchants, and that some, if not much, of the wealth would have been moved into the economy through this mechanism.
The merchants who first took benefit from this arrangement would have been the Darwish and al-Mana families, but with increasing wealth associations developed with the Alattiyah, al-Mannai and Jaidah families some of whom were tied into the al-Thani family through marriages, a common socio-cultural mechanism in the Arab world.
On assuming power in 1972, Sheikh Khalifa made severe cuts to the revenues flowing to the al-Thani family. This initiative helped buttress his efforts to modernise and develop what was seen to be a more balanced social programme. Many of those Qataris who were not al-Thani now were able to benefit from his initiatives. However, one of the side effects of this was the establishing of government systems for bringing benefit to many who would formerly have requested assistance from those with wealth.
Some Qataris saw this as impacting their traditional ways of operating through the majlis system, and as not working to their advantage. In particular, it diminished the standing of the head of the family in the eyes of those seeking assistance when they were told to go to the government who were now structured to assist them in areas such as education and health treatment abroad – two of the areas where requests were most frequently made.
The al-Thani family have integrated themselves into Qatari society more deeply with the dispersion of oil revenues and the development of the country, and there is a strong identification with the country, as there is with all Qataris. This feeling is reinforced in them to a large extent by the overwhelming numbers of expatriates who are apparent everywhere when Qataris go outside their homes, a factor which contributes to their identification as Qataris. Yet the al-Thani family continue to see themselves as the ruling family with the right to determine policy and the direction of government. In the absence of a Western-style democratic process, and in order for this to continue, there is thought to be constant intrigue which, in the past, has manifested itself in plots threatening a number of heads of State who were unable or unwilling to keep all members of the family happy.
more to be written…
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Muslim society is informed by and dependent upon the Holy Quran. It is a guide to the way Muslims live in its widest meaning and is the single source that can be relied upon for guidance and direction on any issue that presents itself. It is both the basis for religious belief as well as the social code upon which all individuals’ actions are based and governed. It is important to understand that it is very different from the Christian Bible and the Jewish Tanakh, in that it is considered by Muslims to be the literal word of God.
Islam is the official religion of the Arabian peninsula, which comprises the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, the latter of which contains the most holy places of the Muslim world, Mecca and Medina. Although some religious tolerance is shown towards the practitioners of other religions, this really applies only to those who are said to be ‘people of the book’ – those who share a common pre-history with Islam – Jews and Christians.
It is difficult to over-emphasise the importance of Islam to those dealing with development or anything else, for that matter, within the region. The differences between the generally Christian West and Islam are immense and perhaps impossible for non-Muslims in the West to comprehend fully. From birth all aspects of life for a Muslim are defined, guided and constrained by the Holy Quran. This applies not only to the individual but to the collective society in all its groupings, formal and informal. In this sense the Holy Quran represents a social code, but one which is itself expanded by the sunnah and hadith or traditions of the Prophet on the one hand, and those who take it upon themselves to interpret the Quran and the hadith.
Islam is generally taken to mean the submission of the individual to God, and is focussed on the concept of tawheed, the unity of God. This refers to a unique identity, one which encompasses everything and which is both the creator and sustainer of everything, known and unknown, and requires and deserves sole obedience and worship. In this relationship Muslims accept obligations which must be constantly borne in mind and which they must strive to fulfil. In relationship to physical and environmental development, as well as in terms of creativity, this means total compliance with and in the service of God.
The sunnah and hadith are very similar and often confused. At its simplest the sunnah is the tradition of the Prophet, the codes of conduct and practices established by the Prophet for Muslims to follow. It is the second primary source of the doctrine of Islam. The hadith are a narration of how the Prophet lived, or what he permitted either by acceptance or by not disapproving.
The code of conduct which governs the manner in which Muslims live is known as shari’a and applies individually and collectively. It covers all areas cultural, social, legal, economic and political which must be established and operate in accordance with the guidance delivered by the Quran and sunnah.
The Holy Quran was established in the badawi society of fourteen hundred years ago, and it must be a consideration that the manner in which society regulates itself is based upon codes that go back centuries and, in many of its essentials, appears to have changed little. Of course, this is a generalisation for which many exceptions can be argued. But, here, it is imperative to understand both the strength of the relationship between Muslims and the Holy Quran as well as take notice of a number of other factors that apply in this part of the world.
Incidentally, the above photograph illustrates a page of the Holy Quran, and shows the heading of the eighteenth Sura, Al Kahf, from which the English word ‘cave’ is derived.
Muslims hold that there are five basic tenets of Islam stemming from the tawheed, the belief in the unity of God and His creation.
The first is the affirmation of Muslim belief, the shahada, the statement of the unity of God, and the identification of His prophet.
Following from this is the duty of prayer, salat, which must be carried out five times a day, preferably with others, particularly on Fridays.
During the holy month of Ramadhan Muslims fast, sawm, an exercise in self-control, abstinence and concentration. It is a time of purification of the mind and body characterised by reflection on the essence of Islam.
Everything that a Muslim owns is considered to belong to God and, therefore, those with need may share in this through the system of tax or zakaat, which is a sum set aside for their benefit. Usually it is paid annually and should not be confused with alms which are a voluntary gift to those in need. zakaat is both a duty and a social obligation.
Finally there is the duty of the hajj, a pilgrimage which is to be made once in a Muslim’s lifetime to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It symbolises both a physical surrender to God as well as a demonstration of equality and unity.
These five religious pillars should be seen to be the practical tenets of Islam, but it should be understood that there are theological tenets as well, also flowing from the tawheed.
The first of these is the tawheed itself, the belief in the unity of God and His creation.
Flowing from this is the taqwa, an attitude of reverence and care for everything, as everything and everybody have been created for a purpose. It requires Muslims not to harm anything wantonly.
The concept of rahma, compassion, is similar to this and requires Muslims to care for everything and carry out beneficial works.
Having the meaning of governance or stewardship, khilafah has been taken to have the concept of man having stewardship of the world and its resources, with the implication that they should be used wisely.
Described elsewhere, waqf is a charitable endowment used for the benefit of a variety of uses.
One of these, harim, is used to describe land set proscribed from building upon. They can be considered to be green belts or easements upon which no individual may build.
In a similar manner, hima describes areas of wild nature which is owned by, and protected by, the community.
Justice, adl, is a central value of Islam, describing the need to produce justice on earth with all behaving properly to each other.
shari’a is generally taken to be Islamic law but is really a set of principles from which Islamic law is promulgated. The distinction is that while shari’a is a continuum, Islamic law changes in step with Islamic society and its requirements.
The sources for shari’a are the quran, sunnah, ijma, and qiyas. These have been supplemented by Muslim jurists by istislah and ’urf, the former representing public interest, the latter local custom and usage.
On the other hand, fiqh is Islamic jurisprudence and covers all areas of religious, political and civil life. There are a number of different schools of fiqh, each covering a geographical area. That covering the Arabian peninsula is the hanbali school.
This brief description of the tenets of Islam is not meant to be complete and, from experience, the descriptions may not be as accurate as some would like. Although I have said it before, I’ll repeat it here – all these areas flow from the quran and hadith, and must be read and understood in their original Arabic, not in translation.
I hope in setting these out that it will give a better understanding of how Muslims see themselves within the world, and perhaps demonstrate how Islam considers natural resources, particularly oil and gas.
There are two main divisions of Islam to be found in the Gulf – sunni and shi’a – though there are, in addition, a number of smaller sects and sub-sects. The two main divisions equate to a large extent with, respectively, the Ottoman and Safavid empires. When the Prophet, Muhammad, died he left no male heir to continue his work. Upon his death a majority of his companions preferred to resolve the leadership problem by electing an individual they believed best qualified for the task, this becoming the sunni. A minority, the shi’a, preferred the principle of heredity and supported Ali, the cousin and husband of Muhammad’s daughter. sunni muslims are mainly based in Saudi Arabia where the holy places of Islam are located in the towns where Muhammad lived and worked – Mecca and Medina. The Gulf States are also led by sunni muslims although some have a majority of shi’ite muslims living in them, such as Kuwait, Bahrein and the United Arab Emirates. shi’ite muslims are based in Iran, but have a following elsewhere, chiefly in Iraq and Pakistan.
Three of the four immediate successors of the Prophet were murdered and the strength of Islam diluted by warring factions. Legitimacy was claimed by leaders in Damascus, then Baghdad and Cairo. Under Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottomans defeated their sunni rivals, the Mamelukes of Egypt in 1517, and conquered all Arab lands apart from those of their shi’ite rivals, the Safavids of Persia. Christendom was alarmed by the power of Islam and took a variety of actions attempting to defeat or accommodate it, but it was only with the failure of the Ottoman Empire’s attempt to take Vienna and then Malta, that perceptions in the West began to change.
Islam contains a number of sects who view their religion differently in certain respects. sunni are the majority sect of the Qataris with shi’ite the Muslim minority. Generally the shi’ite have settled into the country from Iran or Bahrein, whereas the sunni have come from the Saudi hinterland. It is important to note that the Al Thani of Qatar are wahhabi sunni – followers of a devout sect based in Saudi Arabia who follow and espouse a strict way of living, itself based on salafism, an early-established order of creed and tenets of Islam.
Within the Gulf it is apparent that there are increasing tensions between the sunni and shi’ite leaderships and communities. In a crude sense the rivalries can be seen as typified by the regimes of, respectively, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the former holding that the revolutionary initiatives of Iran are spilling out and influencing shi’ite muslims in countries outside Iran, a process that is also affecting sunni in those countries, as well as the stability of those countries. It is noticeable that there is increasing rhetoric from both sides of the Gulf, particularly from the more fundamentalist elements, that serves to increase tension in the different communities. Pressure from Jewish fundamentalism in the north also adds to these tensions which some commentators believe needs countering not so much as by a Western presence but by the influence of religious leaders in Egypt and Iraq.
There are also traditionally smaller groups such as those who amalgamate their religion with the following of zaar – a traditional African cult or religion that has come to be assimilated into the poorer Qatari traditions and is no longer held to be in conflict with Islam.
But expatriates comprise the majority of the population, and although many of them are Muslims they often understand and practise their religion differently from Qataris. The State is also host to large communities of Hindus and Christians both from the Indian sub-continent, north America and Europe.
Firstly, it is argued that the opposing concepts of shame and honour are crucial to understanding not only the behaviour of individuals – or, in fact, whole groups of the society – but for a comprehension of the failure of the Arab States to progress. Whether or not there has been a failure to progress is debatable, the argument revolving to a large extent around the manner in which success, failure and progress are concepts mainly understood in their European definition; but there does appear to be a concerned body of Arab opinion that asks why there has been failure, and why there has not been progress.
The reason I began with that statement is because it appears to have much to do with the way individuals behave on a personal and group level as well as at the level of national strategy. Understanding this, or not, has great significance now to those in the West. It’s important to realise this when considering individual and group behaviour. At its simplest it is imperative to understand that, when there is conflict against one Muslim group by a non-Muslim group, then all Muslims will automatically side with the Muslim group, regarding it as a shaqiqa. This also applies at an individual level.
Secondly, it should be borne in mind that the ranking of an individual within the society relates directly to the manner in which he is perceived to carry out the duties of his position.
Thirdly, within Qatar there is a hierarchy relating to families in Qatar. This has two basic elements,
Qatar’s Ruling Family come from one of the badu tribes, the Maadhid who were a branch of the Bani Tamim. For the most part they are intermarried with other badu families, often for political reasons. The merchant class tends to be of Iranian stock based on pearling and trade, though this has changed dramatically with the increase in revenue to the state from oil and gas.
The importance of this is that the character of society in the state depends very much on badu values, no matter what the casual Western visitor thinks from conversation and observation. The difficulty with this is that much of the writing and comment was based on concepts that were different from those obtaining in the Arab world.
For instance, European officials, with their preconceived cultural attitudes and over-respect for hierarchies, assumed that tribal structures were permanent. In fact, structures varied constantly with the ever-changing relationship between shaikh and tribe. Elements of tribes might become independent tribes when a centralised authority was perceived to be weak, and confederations turned into single units under strong leadership.
It is contended that most Europeans who visited Arabia were unable to penetrate the true tribal society. Those who were travellers and explorers were more interested in places than people, and those who policed or adminstered sought to impose their preconceptions and hierarchies on the tribes.
A concomitant difficulty for the Europeans was their lack of understanding of where true power lay. Administrators and businessmen often dealt with individuals appointed to deal with them, not realising that they were treating with agents rather than those holding power. From a political point of view this meant that it was extremely difficult for Westerners to make a true assessment of the situation in which they found themselves. The corollary to this is that we should be extremely circumspect when reviewing early writings.
Prior to the 1950s very few Qataris could read and write, and most of the information we have on the area is based on the observations and records of Europeans. To the best of my knowledge, the first serious work attempting to understand the manner in which the society operated was not carried out until 1972. It was then that a planning team employed socio-anthropologists in order to be able to understand the society better and to establish sensible and sensitive planning policies.
With regards to badu society it is common to think of the tribes as coherent and cohesive units, each with its distinctive name. This is not really the case. The individual badawi is, in theory, free of constraint or responsibility and there still exists a romantic feeling for the concept of the individual and his life in the harsh extremes of the desert. However, it is common sense that each person aligns himself with a tribe – usually the one into which he is born – in order to enjoy its protection. In reality it may be difficult to distance himself from the tribe. This photograph typifies to me the feeling of the individualism enjoyed by badu even today, with a badawi walking while holding his old Lee-Enfield .303 over his shoulder.
As a member of a tribe the badawi must obey its rules though, as a member of the tribe, he will participate in its deliberations and work to the general benefit of the tribe. But if he feels marginalised or that his independence is constrained, he will be free to leave. The onus is on him to align his interests with the tribe and work to its benefit, his position within the tribe being dependent on and achieved through his own efforts.
The system of tribal government is simple. Each tribe or section of a tribe is nominally ruled by a shaikh, elected by consensus. There is no qualification required either from the electors or the elected. Generally this results in power being entrusted to members of certain families from whom the shaikh is elected.
It is difficult to know how such elections takes place but, from observation and talking with individuals, it is evident that there will be a very strong feeling for who is electable, and who is the best person for the job. It seems to be a case of primus inter pares, and obviously this varies with time and circumstance.
The shaikh rules absolutely but takes advice both from his peers as well as, more formally, from his majlis. Having said that, the majlis was not the formalised body it now is in the Gulf states – in both cases a group representing the more important elements of the tribe. Access to the shaikh is imperative as it is the mechanism for receiving petitions, listening to and dealing with individuals’ problems, and obtaining an understanding of the problems of the tribe.
The shaikh needs to be relatively wealthy as he will be responsible for hospitality, an extremely important characteristic of the badu life and one which continues in both rural and urban settlements. Generosity is measured in a number of ways, most commonly in terms of time, accommodation and meals but can also be in terms of funding or assistance as discussed below. To many it is associated with food. This photograph is of a traditional Qatari meal known as machboos. Traditionally a guest would be fed a meal similar to this of camel or sheep served on a bed of rice, and often with chicken round the rim of the dish. Near the coast, fish would be served in a similar way, machboos referring to a style of cooking.
Wealth is accrued through a variety of operations, some of them derived from zakaat, some from subsidies paid by tribes acknowledging his authority, and some from trade, particularly pearling. But it was a common mechanism that shyuwkh would associate themselves with leading merchants to the advantage of both.
In return for the loyalty of the individual, the shaikh provides prestige, security and direction for badawi as well as the tribe in general. In the past he would also pay for the resolution of many of the individuals’ problems brought to him. Nowadays there is the tendency, if not the rule, that this is devolved upon the State. This move from personal involvement to the state’s action is important and will be discussed later as it has an effect within a number of areas of society.
Traditionally, you might consider each tribe as a separate nation with its own conceptual rights relating to space, peace and war, and with its own political independence. This, then, is the setting for the individual within a society developed from badu roots.
Generally within these notes I have used the term majlis to describe a physical space as well as a social-cultural concept or construct within which there is discussion and the dissemination of information. But there is another concept which is important to understand, that of the diwaniyah which has a more political aspect yet can also be conflated with the majlis in many of its aspects. In Kuwait, for example, the diwaniyah is seen as representing political expression as well as an architectural space. In this respect Qatar is a little different with the term diwan being used loosely to describe the offices of the Head of State where a number of activities which are not political, in its more Western understanding, are also carried out.
Within the physical space of the diwaniyah or majlis any issue of interest can be and is discussed freely, whether it relates to family, politics, business or, as is often the case, all three as small societies experience strong interlinkages in these areas. While there are rooms set aside in everybody’s house – majaalis – in many senses the diwaniyah can occur anywhere whether it be a shop, café or public space. Moreover there is a strong degree of participation in that anybody can join and leave at will, contributing information and opinions. Traditionally this was how news was passed on, organisation effected, ideas developed and opinions formed. Communication was made face to face, a necessity before the introduction of electronic methods, but also a reflection of the manner in which badu prefer to communicate. It should be borne in mind that a similar system operates for women but, for the most part, only within the house.
This element of social life is an imperative in the Gulf and the Saudi hinterland. As discussed elsewhere, there is a natural order of precedence both within the qabila as well as in the formal and informal structures of government both to participate in and to host the diwaniyah. This facilitates the distribution and collation of information and its filtering to consensus as it moves upwards through the hierarchical system it constitutes. Taken in 1966, this photograph shows the Ruler standing to receive a guest while, on the left, coffee is being offered to a seated guest.
Although some believe that electronic communications, the mobile telephone in particular, has replaced the diwaniyah system, Arabs have a predisposition to face-to-face meeting and interactions as well as strong cultural behaviour patterns. The diwaniyah continues to form the setting for meeting in a hierarchy of informal and formal groupings and, as such, should be considered a political space in terms of the governing of the country. It also remains a socio-cultural necessity in a country where change is rapid and its influences on society difficult to predict. The majlis can be thought of as necessary both conceptually as well as in its physical form.
While the notes on this page relate more to the socio-cultural aspects of the diwaniyah or majlis, it is important to understand that, in architectural terms the majlis represents an important typology, essentially a rectangular space with seating set around its walls. It is a formal spatial element of every house and, in many arrangements, can also be found in other types of building. This photograph shows the majlis within the VIP facility at the airport where guests are first received on arrival, and where farewells are made. It represents the most formal layout with the host and guest sitting opposite the entrance door and tables arranged on which drinks can be set. Here it reflects the face of the State at the time of its construction in the 1980s, but it is an accurate representation of what still happens in all Qatari homes.
In 1971 the total population of the Qatar peninsula was considered to be around 120,000 of whom 42,000, or just over a third, were Qatari. In 2011, forty years later – perhaps this can be thought of as a little over a generation in time – there was a population of 1,700,000, of whom 240,000 were Qataris – around an eighth, or 14% of the population, with the percentage falling due to the increasing numbers moving into the country to support its expansion.
As the numbers of expatriates living in Qatar has increased there has been, for many Qataris and long term expatriates, a bewildering number, range and scale of physical developments as the State has expanded in line with its 2030 National Vision. This is seen to rest on the four pillars of:
all of which is stated to be premised on balancing the
One important aspect of this development has seen the increased and increasing influence of Western cultural mores not only on Qataris, but also on the expatriates themselves who come from all over the world to participate in Qatar’s expansion. The resulting mélange is an artificial construct and not a society that has grown naturally over time. In such a society it is natural that relationships may not be what they seem and that many will attempt to benefit from the perceived advantages presented to them. Not only that but there are a number of mechanisms operating to maintain the perception of a normal balanced society – whatever that may be…
Notably, many of those coming to work in the State are able to take advantage of the new socio-cultural environment in which they find themselves, amending their personal outlooks and standards and developing new behavioural patterns and objectives. Standards change, often dramatically, with many feeling that they have more freedom to behave as they wish, a view reinforced by the apparent security provided to those living in the State compared with their own countries.
Paradoxically, while behaviour can be more extreme and in conflict with local standards there is considerable self-censorship, particularly with those involved in areas such as education and journalism who understand that their continuing ability to live in the country might be jeopardised by their applying a more incisive or rigorous professionalism.
It is easy to take a superficial view of the changing face of the State. It is exciting to view and to experience. It is promoted as positive development and, with increased exposure and scrutiny from Arab and Western perspectives, it is attracting attention, though not all of it positive.
Within this changing setting Qataris are developing as best they can. Wherever they go they see mainly expatriates. Qataris are dispersed both in the disposition of their housing as well as in their workplaces. The ease with which they once met, did business and exchanged information has developed into a different spatial system. And in their homes and at work they have expatriates working for them and generally attempting to maintain these relationships in order to continue to benefit from the revenues flowing from the State both for personal and familial reasons.
Qataris find it difficult to spend time alone or with their families due to increasing conflict between the different timetables each member of the family now has to maintain particularly for business and education. Traditionally relying upon close contact with other Qataris, increasingly they find themselves associating with expatriates, and not always of their choosing. Those considered to have any degree of power, and that tends to mean any Qatari, are likely to attract expatriates for personal gain, and it is difficult for Qataris to know the degree to which a relationship might be genuine.
As a consequence there is an ambiguity about personal relationships which is reflected in the manner in which people meet and discuss the normal range of interests all share. Despite the pressures, Qataris continue to maintain traditional relationships, though not in the way expatriates seem to believe. The mobile ’phone is one way of doing this, but the majlis system also operates to effect this. While this can happen within a physical majlis, it also happens in other spaces operating in the traditional manner. This can be a shop, an office, a study or private room within the male side of the house, or even a random meeting in a street or car, but it is essentially the traditional majlis in operation and is a necessary mechanism in the socio-political sphere of Qatari culture.
On the page looking at the operation of the house on its lot, and in some of the paragraphs above, I have looked at some of the different aspects of the majlis, but this diagram is here as a reminder of how different groups of people meet within the same structure whether it is a physical room within a home, or if it is one of the other locations suggested above. Increasingly it is difficult for Qataris to meet in private. Yet, by the same token, it is necessary for them to withdraw from the freer social environment that has developed in order to obtain a degree of privacy within solely their own society where they can discuss business, family, tribal and national issues while maintaining their independence from foreign influences.
Traditional moraes are still important to Qataris, more so at the upper levels of their society and despite trends such as those introduced with foreign educational standards, the increasing mobility of women and significantly more disposable wealth. Many of the old values remain or are being rediscovered. These continue to inform issues such as heritage, a area which is now being developed by the State and, by extension, reminding Qataris of their roots and attachment to the peninsula. And the strong wahhabi undercurrent remains. It is not insignificant that the new State masjid constructed overlooking West Bay has been named after Imaam Muhammad ibn ’abd al-Wahhab, reinforcing legitimacy to the peninsula after the painful international decision awarding the Hawwar islands to Bahrain.
But in this there may be difficulties as nationalism tends both to bind Qataris together, but also emphasises their differences from the expatriates who outnumber and surround them. Friendships are certainly made at different levels between Qataris and expatriates, but are commonly misunderstood by the latter. Regrettably layers of expatriates now attempt to make themselves indispensable to Qataris and create barriers for those needing or wishing to meet or have access to them. In this there are significant opportunities for misunderstanding, profit and loss, causing decision-making to become more complex. Expatriates do not wish to be seen to make issues complex or unacceptable, nor are they able to make important decisions. Lower orders of nationals wish to maximise their chances of making good or correct decisions, often in areas where they do not have expertise, so there are considerable areas for misunderstanding, delegation and inconsistent decision-making.
more to be written…
There are notes in other parts of this site relating to the behaviour of women, including those associated with women in education. As with many of the subjects of these notes, it is difficult to draw together in a sensible manner all the issues in a single place. Here I just wish to add a note that represents one of the issues that are beginning to surface in the public realm, and which would have been rare to see and impossible to read about only a few years ago. Please bear in mind that this may not represent as much as it imports; it may well be another issue brought to light by journalists searching for material to fill a television programme. Certainly, Qataris I have spoken with say they know nothing about it.
A recent article reported on a local television programme, laqum al qaraar, where issues relating to women’s dress was discussed. Specifically, the subject of women dressing as men was aired. For this to be openly talked about, it must represent or reflect a number of problems within the society though, as noted above, it is not possible to determine its extent.
Apparently a number of women – presumably young, as the reference is to schools and university – are dressing in a masculine way with baggy trousers and cropped hair. Just as bad, or even worse, they are harassing the more traditional students. The introduction of these fashions are blamed on the West and its influence through the media. But it is also not surprising, with so many traveling abroad – and, when abroad, often adopting the local habits and clothes – that some of those fashions are continued in their home country – despite the traditional socio-religious constraints.
These constraints are extremely strong, so it is notable when young women are able to demonstrate this behaviour outside the house. By the same token is is surprising that their fathers and brothers have not been able to influence them as there are social ramifications that reflect on the family in general and the men in particular. In addition to this, the behaviour seems not to have attracted the attention of religious leaders or, if it has done, has not come to the attention of the English-speaking media.
From a Western perspective it might be thought that these women, who refer to themselves as ‘boyat’, reflect a relatively normal phenomenon in wishing to exhibit themselves to be distinct from their mainstream peers and, particularly, their parents and the values they hold and represent. That behaviour is likely to be understood and, though not liked, be tolerated as relatively normal in the West. But, in Qatar, the response appears to fall between those wishing to see the death penalty imposed to those believing medical treatment is needed. Westerners may feel that this range of response is at least unfortunate if not illogical and certainly not appropriate, but that view would fail to respect the strong religious component that governs social norms. So what is really unusual is the open manner in which this phenomenon is being discussed as well as there apparently being no way of dealing with it.
Whereas Western observers might characterise this behaviour as being relatively normal and a generational issue reflecting difficulties young people have with their parents, there is at least one other possibility. This behaviour may have more or much to do with the concern many women in the region have for the dominance of men in general, and their fathers and brothers in particular. The perceived problem may well have a very different root from that seen by casual observers.
Perhaps there are a parallels with the arguments women use in either adopting or rejecting the hijab. Some wear it in order to demonstrate their religious belief, some to conform to wishes of their families and some to demonstrate a freedom they find in its cover. But this freedom is also said to be expressed by those who deliberately go unmasked or even wear Western dress. In this the ‘boyat’may be thought similar. Qatar is not alone in having this problem; it has been noted and commented on elsewhere in the area and policies are being adopted to deal with the perceived problem.
The introduction of Western university colleges to Qatar has brought with it not only Western faculty staff, their relations and value systems, but also increased links and a greater interchange of students with the home universities. This has reinforced the concepts previously seen only on television and film of fellow students, their normal dress and behaviour – in the West. More than this there are a larger number of Westerners in administrative and and educational positions who bring to Qatar their Western cultural viewpoints.
One of the reasons for starting this site was the premise that few expatriates understand enough of the country in which they are now living. In practice it is noticeable that critical comment about nationals is common, and that criticism is not confined just to normal inter-personal commentary within expatriate communities, but also spills out into the public domain through the press. It also appears through the educational system both within courses at university as well as in a number of special fora that bring experts into the country and provide a setting for their views. Those in the Gulf who blame the West and its influences seem neither to criticise the institutions that have been introduced and the values they bring, nor the criticisms that increasingly appear in the local press and at these events.
It appears that the perceived problem or problems reflected by the ‘boyat’ may have serious ramifications within the society; in fact this may already be happening. Elsewhere i have written about the disparities demonstrated through the different secondary and tertiary educations received by the sexes, and it must follow that this will be reflected in marriage and divorce and, more generally, the relationships between the sexes and, from these, family life. Traditionalists may possibly have something to worry about.
A final point to make in support of the demonstration of the above thinking, comes from a schoolgirl in the above-mentioned ‘Syrian School’ series. The disparity between the freedoms enjoyed by boys and by girls appears to be a continuing source of irritation to those girls who wish to expand their activities into areas that are considered socio-religiously to be the province of boys. Speaking about her being prevented from pursuing a musical career of her choosing, she said:
Girls suffer a lot while looking on at boys enjoying a lot of freedom and going out. So a lot of girls wish they were boys…
The attitude is understandable, particularly in the Gulf where the West exerts a much stronger influence upon the national societies through the introduction of educational systems and their values from the West, through the cultural pressures of the media, and through the imbalance between national and expatriate communities. So it may not be surprising that some young women express their disquiet not just through their poetry and discussion with their peers, but through their dress and changing behaviour.
While Islam means the submission of an individual to God, the family is the fundamental unit of Islamic society. Its importance in this sense should not be underestimated. The society relies on the stability which family life brings and the harmony this establishes in the social structure. However, in recent years, this structure is being threatened, a subject which is attracting increasing comment, even from Qataris themselves who note the effects physical separation is having on their family structures and relationships.
Perhaps this is one of the chief reasons that families continue to take an interest in, and to understand, the niceties of their lineage. The unspoken intent appears to be a wish to keep their family lines as traditional as practicable. This subject is commonly discussed both in the majaalis by men as well as by women who are traditionally seen as being the group who arrange marriages for their sons and daughters. It is common for Qataris to comment privately on these relationships, not just those in their own families but also on individuals within the wider Qatari community. This, then, appears to be the rationale behind the social stratification that exists, and of which all are aware, in Qatari society.
The notes that follow look mainly at the issues of relationships within the Qatar society and touch also on marriage to foreigners. There are related issues that may not be understood by Western readers, but are significant when considering family life in its wider sense. These are areas that touch on nationality and the more political aspects of State stewardship throughout the Gulf and its hinterland. In particular, the issues relating to the bidoon and hadhar need to be understood as this can influence not only the way in which families are perceived, but also relationships within a family. A little more is written about the former on the page looking at pressures on the society, and the latter on the history page.
But the term ‘family’ has a slightly different meaning in its Islamic context than it does in its Western one. At its simplest the Islamic family is assumed to be an extended family as opposed to the nuclear family common in the West, and this type of family is much preferred to the nuclear type. There are psychological, social, economic and political reasons for this as I have mentioned previously.
Psychologically there is strength and steadiness to be gained from living in the larger number and wider age range of an extended family. The collective experience within the family brings stability through the knowledge, advice and support its individuals can provide. It is not unusual for a number of generations to live in the same building or building complex and, where this is not possible, to maintain the close links through visiting and the telephone – all this to a greater extent than in the West.
The social value of this is significant. The extended family encourages, if not demands, the participation of its members which, as well as promoting the positive psychological values of the last paragraph, reinforces the social links. The latter is particularly dependent upon the Holy Quran. Among other things, the Quran establishes responsibilities for the extended family by specifying requirements for a number of issues including relationships and inheritance. For instance, here is one of the verses of the Holy Quran dealing with inheritance – 4.176:
They ask you for a decision of the law. Say: Allah gives you a decision concerning the person who has neither parents nor offspring; if a man dies (and) he has no son and he has a sister, she shall have half of what he leaves, and he shall be her heir she has no son; but if there be two (sisters), they shall have two-thirds of what he leaves; and if there are brethren, men and women, then the male shall have the like of the portion of two females; Allah makes clear to you, lest you err; and Allah knows all things.
It bears repeating that the Holy Quran is the basis on which Muslims live their lives.
The wider grouping of the family produces a substantial influence on the perceived and actual economic coherence of the family. Under Islam men and women have different roles in life. At its crudest it can be characterised as the men providing economic input, the women dealing with the child rearing aspects. This, by the way, is codified in the Holy Quran. It is possible for one man to have the responsiblity of looking after a large, extended family, but it is also possible for there to be a number of men having an economic input into the family. It is evident that the number of men providing this input will differ over time in any one extended family, but the possibility of more than a single person providing economic benefit is great. In addition to this, the character of Islam and the links with the wider family or even the qabila encourages economic support where needed. In this aspect the head of the tribe is responsible for ensuring the economic health of the tribe and, by extension, the families within it.
Within the tribe you can see that there is political advantage to working for the economic and social health of the tribe. At a smaller scale this also applies to the family. The stronger and more cohesive the family is, the more power they are likely to have within the society. Marriage within the family and the occasional marriage outside it to strengthen links will create a stronger power base for the family, one that will bring it increased benefit within the tribe and, to some extent, outside it.
Islam is criticised in the West for the manner in which it is thought it subjugates women to a lesser role than men. The Holy Quran establishes the basis for family life and, in this, men have the role – actually, the duty – of providing economically for the family, while the women, due to their natural characteristics, produce and rear children. These two roles are both duties and priviledges and embraced naturally within the family. It is this that is at the root of the prescriptions for inheritance and the like.
One of the areas in which Islamic social values are strongest is that relating to marriage; the family is regarded as the basis of society. As in the West families are organised through patrilineal descent, though it is interesting to note that Qatari families are matrifocal. Marriage outside the family is rare and actively discouraged though, as I noted above, there is a tradition of families inter-marrying in order to maintain and strengthen political alliances. But all this is changing.
Many of these pages mention the degree of change occurring in Qatar and the impact it is having on the physical or visual side of the peninsula. But the people themselves are being affected with significant changes in Qatari society being witnessed, particularly with regard to marriage. This is not confined to Qatar and can be seen elsewhere in the Gulf, perhaps most notably in Kuwait where there is particular concern for the extent of divorce.
It is evident that education is having an effect on women, and that exposure to the moraes of the West through the high proportion of expatriates brought in to develop the country is a contributing factor. This is reflected in the decision to marry, choice of husband, the age of marriage as well as in divorce and its reasons.
Looking at the published statistics it is sensible to discount the expatriate figures as that element of the society, while being by far the larger percentage, is unusual in many respects when compared with the national population. And as the national population figures are not published there are a number of calculations that can’t be made. However, it is possible to look at the figures for marriage and divorce as absolute figures. Bear in mind that what follows is based on single statistical glimpses and are likely to be inaccurate.
However, the published statistics show that, for Qataris, there were 1,549 marriages in 2001 and 1,752 in 2010. For the same years there were 448 and 820 divorces respectively. Again, the numbers of Qataris in those two years are not given but, for the sake of illustration, let’s say they were 130,000 and 210,000 respectively.
What is extraordinary is that these figures show that, while the national population may have increased by 62% over the nine year period, marriages have increased by only 13%, while divorces have increased by 83%. In other words, marriages are decreasing and divorces increasing.
According to the same statistics, Qatari men married at the average age of 27.0 in 2001 and 26.5 in 2010, while women married at an average age of 23.8 for both years, the significance being that Qatari women tend to be three years younger than their husbands on marriage. The statistics also show that in 2010, 58% of Qatari women were married with secondary education, and 20% with tertiary education. Regrettably, the figures are not given for Qatari men.
As you can see, these figures are generalisations but have been placed here as an introduction to apparent trends relating to marriage for Qataris. Other statistics can be found on the page dealing in more detail with the population. As an aside it should be noted that the statistics on divorces include the numbers of sons on divorce, but not daughters.
By convention, a Qatari, as in traditional tribal society, should marry his first cousin – il bint il wald amha. In Qatar, this is true for approximately a third of women. This is not always managed for a number of reasons. In Qatar, particularly, families confine social events to the immediate family and there is little cross-family visiting. Women are required to stay at home and few work as it is believed that this might bring their families into disrepute. There is rarely the possibility for men to meet Qatari women and develop relationships that are likely to lead to marriage. However, times are changing, particularly with the possibility of tertiary education being readily available and the government’s policies of encouraging women in the workplace.
The changes this is making to society reflect on the way in which a number of issues are being identified. Generally on these pages I write about Qataris being a cohesive social group though, of course, they are not. Above there is a note on the differences between those of badu stock and those who came from outside the peninsula, often traders. This distinction continues to be important, especially to some of the families who do not wish their children to marry outside a limited group of qabaa’l. Although this comment may seem unusual, I have heard it, or something like it, mentioned a number of times. There apparently continues to be a real concern. Why this should be so, I’m unsure as there may be a number of possible explanations. One reason may be the transference of a personal antipathy to a more general demonstration of disquiet; but it may also be a reflection of unease at the way in which it is felt society is changing, and how little control individuals feel they have. Holding onto the past with its old traditions and beliefs, may well be an expression of this. It certainly is one way in which individuals may feel they continue to exercise some control over their, and their family’s, lives.
I mentioned the criticism of Islam with regard to the perceived inferior status accorded to women, but argued that this is not the case. One of the reasons for this criticism has been the trend in the West for women to move into the economic areas that men traditionally have taken. Arguments revolve around the right that women have to work at the same jobs as men, and the difficulties this brings with regard to equal pay, child rearing and so on. Western governments have introduced a range of policies to encourage and enable women to work, have children and see them looked after. This is inimical to the requirments of the Holy Quran. Islam holds both roles of men and women to be of equal merit and, in their different activities being followed, creates successful families. In particular you should understand that men have a legal duty to look after women, but women do not have this duty. Their roles are distinct and different.
Having said that there is certainly considerable feeling among some who see their lives governed, cradle to grave, by men. A young Saudi woman has written this on her blog:
I am born
A man chooses my name
I am taught
That he did not bury me alive
What he wants me to know
What he wants me to live
Who he wants me to marry
What he wants me to eat
If he dies
Another man controls my life
They tell me when I die
I am going to be judged on my man-made life.
I can’t be judged
I’ll never be judged…
It is just another rant
buried in the Kingdom of Sand
For those wishing to read more in the Quran on marriage, this listing is taken from the index to the USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim texts:
The above are, of course, translations. The Holy Quran has to be applied in the original Arabic, supported by the hadith.
So, with the different roles established, with restricted contact outside the family, and with the need to continue the tradition of extended families, how is this managed? Anybody visiting a Qatari household will see that there is a strong matrifocal atmosphere. There will be women of different ages, young children of both sexes and servants. There may be one or two male servants who will be expatriates, but there will generally be no Qatari men in sight for most of the day though younger sons tend to visit from time to time. Some of the women there will be visiting as is the custom during the day.
The women meet, generally in the home of the most senior, and drink tea and coffee, eat biscuits, chocolates and cake, apply henna, discuss issues of the day – and make plans, particularly for the younger, unmarried members of their family, both boys and girls. It is these relations and friends who will effectively find a wife for a young Qatari when it is thought by the family that it is time for him to marry, and plans for these events are made years in advance as they are essentially political alliances.
This implies that a bride is only sought when it is time for marriage. This isn’t really so as the process starts a long time before that. Families keep a constant eye on the opportunities for making suitable matches. There is constant discussion about the suitability of, preferably, cousins. Women visit and check out young girls as possible matches for the boys in their family.
Interaction between the sexes is strongly constrained by the Holy Quran and ahaadith. At its simplest, it is forbidden for a man to touch a woman unless they are related, and even then there are limits. Those who may touch are defined precisely in the Holy Quran but there is concern created by the loosening of traditional ties and the increasing influence of Western moraes. I have added this photograph as it illustrates an important socio-religious point. Here, Sheikha Moza, wife of the Ruler of Qatar, seen in the background, is shaking hands with Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most important religious figures not just in Qatar but in the Islamic world, but also one whose views are controversial. This encounter created something of a stir with traditionalists but the Sheikh, writing in response to a question posed to him by a correspondent, laid down the conditions under which this was allowed. Essentially the action has much to do with respect, which moves the action towards the permissible.
With the exception of those who are mahram, is not permitted for one sex to touch another. If there is any possibility of temptation or sexual desire, touching is not permitted though it is permitted for a man to shake hands with an old woman or a young child, assuming again that there is no temptation or desire in the action. This is also the case for those who are mahram when the action would be haraam. Having said that, it is considered preferable to avoid touching, if at all possible.
While these attitudes are still considered important, the increasing visibility of Qatari women in the public arena gives rise to conflicting feelings. There are still Qataris – both women and men – who would prefer to see their womenfolk maintain a more discrete profile, while others have no difficulty with women appearing in public, though with the proviso that there is a degree of chaperoning and that their behaviour is ‘proper’. In this photograph a group of adolescent women are enjoying a walk along Doha’s Corniche. There is a degree of horseplay indicating their young age, but it is a sight that would be unnoticed and unremarked in the West. In Qatar it would be thought to draw attention and, therefore, censure from some. It is probable that the older woman on the left of the photograph is chaperoning this group.
But this is one of the ways in which young women can put themselves on display. It marks a dramatic change from a generation ago when a young woman would be considered brazen if she allowed herself to be seen at her gate. It is not uncommon for such groups to be followed by young men, usually in a car, as it would still not be considered ‘proper’ for them to meet face to face in public. As I have noted elsewhere, there is increasing contact between such groups by mobile, telephone and Internet, something that causes concern as it does in the West, with the lack of parental control or, even, knowledge.
This behaviour also contributes to the increasing freedom felt by both sexes, though one that is constrained by religion. Interestingly there is a strong romantic ideal in the Arab world and young Qataris of both sexes push the boundaries of social behaviour, as do the young in many other societies. Generally, however, marriage is within families – traditionally between first cousins – and the unity of the extended family is deliberately maintained. If marriage is not within the family then it is for political reasons, drawing together families of similar character and interests, often reinforcing previous alliances. It is very rare that marriages are made for love in the manner understood in the West. It is, however, far easier to see more of the opposite sex than was previously possible. Visits to the hospitals and clinics, shopping trips, or drives along the Doha Corniche are all opportunities to see or be seen as is illustrated above. With the exposure of individuals through the mechanisms of the television and telephone, flirtations can easily be pursued though the stigma to the family, particularly that of the woman, should the romance be discovered, can be significant. Traditionally the father and brothers would be responsible for dealing with the shame brought on the family by a wayward daughter. More particularly, telephones, mobiles and the Internet have become the methods of contact and communication.
Members of the older generations are uncomfortable with these latter developments as they conflict directly with religious and cultural views of behaviour. The difficulty is that they do not know how to deal with it other than use their traditionally strong family bonds in an attempt to impose whatever control is feasible.
As noted above, young men and women use technologies openly to contact and communicate with each other, though this introduces a paradox in an Islamic society. Men will openly state that they want to meet young women, an operation which obviously has to be carried out in a clandestine manner; but they also state that they anticipate marrying a woman they will not have met before. More than this, they will tell you that they would have nothing to do with any woman who would previously have met other young men. Young Qataris talk of women whom it is relatively easy to speak with or even meet, but there is obvious reluctance to marry them and, as you might anticipate, a degree of derision targeted at the young men who eventually marry them, as well as degree of social opprobrium.
In one of the BBC’s ‘Syrian School’ series, a young woman spoke about her finding a young man to speak to on the telephone. This went on for some time until they were able arrange a place where they could see each other for the first time, when the young man abruptly stopped the association. The young woman talked about her love for the young man, and his subsequent cruelty to her by the manner of his breaking the relationship, going on to say how it had broken her heart and how she would never trust men again. While we may only guess why the young man broke off the relationship, it is highly likely that she and he had very different understandings of the relationship as well as differing expectations. It was a sad insight into the manner in which the sexes are kept apart and how it reflects on them: a traditional society is able to break some of its taboos with Western technologies, but the inability to meet initially has allowed at least one of the parties to develop feelings not shared with the other. In this case the young woman found an outlet for her emotions in poetry in a similar manner to the young Saudi woman who wrote above of her oppression by men, in this case her poetry blaming the young man for his behaviour. It might be considered unfair to allocate a portion of blame to her, but her poetry certainly did not recognise her own part in the relationship. While this can be readily understood in the context of the degree of maturity of a young person, it also reflects on the manner in which maturity is achieved. Other interesting factors to a Westerner was her willingness to broadcast her poetry, and the ready acceptance of the poem by staff and family.
It is certainly one of the ways in which romantic love can be expressed even though I imagine there may be a degree of risk involved with the family discovering what has transpired. This psychologically important outlet may well be one of the reasons for the development and continuing of the tradition of poetry in the Arab world. On a related note, romantic character is also a common factor in some of the photographs placed on public websites by young Arab women, and both young men and women express themselves with photographs accompanied by poetic phrases.
The difficulties relating to the development of relationships between nationals may be some of the reasons why there has been, and continues to be a strong impulse for young men to develop relationships with foreign women in Qatar. While foreign women are relatively easy to meet due in the main to their having different cultural and moral values, the relationships can be misunderstood by both parties due to these differences and, as such, hostage to fortune.
So, while it is unusual for marriages to result from these liaisons, marriages have resulted when Qatari men have gone overseas for their tertiary education. There are a number of Qatari men with foreign wives, though this brings additional problems to the marriages and, of course, to the stability of the extended family – though the greatest strain has to be on the foreign wife. Generally these marriages have been to Westerners who have had to embrace Islam in order to marry, or to Muslims from the Indian sub-continent. In the former case there may be later difficulties when a fuller understanding of Islam and the social ramifications of marriage to a Qatari are better understood. I don’t know if there are many or any Qatari girls who have married foreign men though have been told there are. The State has had an ambivalent attitude towards Qatari men marrying foreigners, reflecting society’s difficulties with such marriages; and there are difficulties relating to women travelling abroad with their children. However, when the extended family accept the marriage – and that really means acceptance before the marriage – there is little reason for the marriage to be seen as anything other than normal, and my understanding is that the families are very supportive.
Western women who have married Qataris can have an ambivalent view of the benefits of their new life. The perils of marrying Muslims has been dramatised in the West by films such as ‘Not without my daughter’ where the law which permits foreign mothers to leave, but without their children is capitalised upon. However, there is another side to this. Qatar allows mothers to leave with their children though it is possible that, were the father to disagree, this would not be permitted. In countries such as Qatar there is considerably more safety than there is in the West, and many mothers realise that their children are not only more safe there from the prevalent Western problems of drugs and crime, but they enjoy considerable benefits in their relationships with their immediate family. Cousins, nephews and friends are, by the nature of the size of the country, only a short distance away. The extended family meets relatively often on an informal basis as I have mentioned before, and this forms a strong stabilising influence on the children.
Not all Gulf States are the same in their view and treatement of foreign wives. There is a concern in some States that their national gene pool should not be diluted and, particularly, that there should not be marriages with women from the Indian sub-continent. However, times change and pressures for democratisation on the Gulf States are likely to alter viewpoints both nationally as well as individually. Bearing in mind the changes that are happening in the region it is not possible to predict how this will develop.
As I mentioned above, mothers and the women of the larger family are responsible for selecting a wife for their sons. Usually this has meant that the mother and her friends keep a constant eye on girls whom they believe are good matches for their sons. This process starts at an early age with the mother looking at a relatively small pool from which to find a bride. This pool was traditionally confined to family or tribe or, in the case of important families, potential political associations with other families. In Qatar there are families who traditionally marry members of another specific family by preference in order to maintain these links.
With development has come increasing exposure of families to the outside world, particularly through education. It was relatively common up to a generation ago for girls’ education to be stopped at secondary level when it became necessary for her to marry. This is still the case in some families but is certainly less so than it was. Now girls want to go on university, an activity that is promoted by the State as well as being supported by those wishing to have more of a role for women.
One particular effect of the selection of girls marrying within the family was caused when there were not enough boys to pair them with. Girls became accustomed either to make the decision to become a spinster, or to wait until later in their life when they might become a second wife to a married man. This still occurs, but I don’t know the extent. It is obviously a very personal decision.
Earlier I mentioned the strong romantic ideal that exists in the Arab world. Although not confined to women, it is certainly more evident in the work they produce in both their writings and photographs placed on the Internet. Men may also have a similar ideal, but both are constrained by custom and know from an early age that their marriage partner is almost certainly to be chosen for them. Perhaps that intensifies the romantic ideal for both of them, but it is noticeable in women’s art that there is a degree of sadness if not melancholy.
Despite the foregoing, I should also add that marriages are entered into voluntarily by both parties, though there is obviously considerable discussion within the family, including the boy and girl, before an agreement is reached between the two fathers and, particularly, before an agreement is signed. Once signed the intended marriage is binding.
An interesting side effect of the method of selecting a bride is that the University is now regarded as a place to view potential marriage partners by the mothers, even though men are often apprehensive at the possibility of obtaining a more worldly, educated wife. A University course, importantly, also raises the marriage age of women from the middle teens to the early to mid-twenties – a much later age for the marriage of women than traditionally was the case. This also has an impact on the graduate workforce. However, there are other aspects of education at the University that cause difficulties.
There is more written on the problems associated with education on the page looking at pressures on the society.
Girls traditionally have their husbands selected for them, but there is increasing evidence that they are becoming more particular in their acceptance of their mothers’ selection, and this choice is no longer automatically approved. The factors influencing this include the
These factors, of course, conflict with the traditional view of marriages being dynastic, drawing together more closely a single family or, more often nowadays, two related families.
There is another issue, one that is increasingly openly discussed, and that is the expense of marriage. There are considerable costs ascribed to marriage, some of them not usually mentioned but which somebody has to pay for in the end. Housing, furniture, fittings and equipment, the bride’s trousseau, gifts and a holiday are all elements of the marriage process, but it is the dowry that is being called out by men who marry. It is the man’s side of the family that pays the majority of the marriage costs and he may have to pay his dowry over a long period due to the amounts that are now being demanded, a ten year period being not unusual. This is likely to be one of the reasons that some Qataris are claiming there is now a trend to take foreign wives. It seems that the increasing value of well-educated Qatari women is reflected not only in their potential to the State, but also in their value in marriage.
Young wives generally live with their parents-in-law where the wife comes under the authority of her new Mother-in-Law unless, through the right to obtain a house and land from Government, they are able to develop a new home and live there.
Nowadays, most Qataris only take a single wife, chiefly for economic reasons, but this also reflects the Quranic requirement that a man should only take more than one wife if he is able to provide for all his wives equally. This requirement is readily translated into physical form when a man has to construct similar housing for his wives when at the least, under Islamic Law women may lay proper claim to the minimum provision of a private living room in a polygynous marriage. This is the manner in which a house is arranged where there are two or more wives, but it can prove difficult to accomplish what is considered to be an equitable sharing of spaces.
When there is space and sufficient funding for it, the preference is to have houses of equal size given to the wives. Sometimes this is not possible and the wives will live in different places as a result of circumstances at the time of the marriage. However, when it is possible, an arrangement can be made such as in this photograph where four sites are located at the west side of this development giving some form of parity for four wives.
In a sense the above photograph, shown here in its basic form, illustrates the ideal requirement for a family where there is a villa-style development with landscaping within a surrounding secure wall, containing separate houses for the man of the household and his four wives together with majlis, masjid and the concomitant service accommodation including hierarchical car parking.
Because of the power of the women in the society there are a number of difficulties faced by men in providing both the wealth thought necessary to run the household in a manner to which the family has or would like to become accustomed, and in attaining and holding the position in society thought necessary within the family group. For this reason there is often considerable conflict within families about the achievements of the husband and his activities in the society that, at the higher levels, can be followed both through the traditional majaalis of men and women, as well as through the media.
Although the society is matrifocal and the mother at the centre of her family enjoys great social power, a woman is at risk in two areas of society. The first is in producing the male children required by society;
A succession of daughters does not advance the status of wife in the society.
The number of wives that Muslims may have is also a subject of comment in the West. A Muslim may take up to four wives but he must treat them equally. Talking with Muslims you will find that it is now unusual to take more than a single wife because of the potential strain. Where a man has more than a single wife it is usually either for political reasons or for the original rationale: to look after orphans and women who require protection ̵ 4.03:
And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course.
I have been told that the original impetus for taking more than one wife was for widows and orphans to be looked after, and there is much made of the regulation of behaviour towards orphans and their estates in the Quran to support this.
Where there are political circumstances for a man to take more than one wife it is not uncommon for this to be discussed and decisions made in the majlis situation and then ratified with the women of the families involved. In this circumstance it may be that the first wife will not know about the decision to take a second wife until it is presented as a fait accompli. However, where there are family or social circumstances for a man to take more than one wife, it is not uncommon for the first wife to have a say in the choice if not direct the process along with her female family friends. In both these circumstances it can be seen that the provision for wives is directed by a greater social need of the tribe or family.
The key points to bear in mind is that wives have to be treated equally, and that society will be aware of how well the man accomplishes this.
Much is made in the Western world of the Islamic attitude to divorce. A number of sources suggest it is a trivial process and abusive to women. This is a simplistic position and not in accordance with the requirements of the Holy Quran.
Under Islam divorce may not be capricious, although it is has always been thought that the threat of it is used by some men. However, although there are traditional safeguards to ensure that a woman is provided for when she becomes divorced, the attitude of the State in making provision for social security benefits in such instances, as well as others, has weakened the traditional responsibilities of families and societies to protect and care for such women.
The divorce rate is, apparently, rising and has become a cause for concern. The reason for the rise in the rate within the Gulf is thought generally to revolve around the conflicts between traditional values and those imported from the West. It is interesting to note that the other reasons given are the relative youth of those embarking upon marriage and the concomitant belief of the couples’ relative immaturity and their inability to shoulder marital responsibilities – a rationale that has not changed in centuries. This is compounded by the ability for divorces to be sanctioned by the blessing of a religious Sheikh without the need for the couples to go to court. As there seems to be a distinct pattern of both men and women seeking to be married later for the reasons given above, I believe that this second reason may not be as strong an argument as that relating to the impact of Western values.
Divorce is not considered to be an appropriate course for Muslims, although provision is made for it. Both the woman and man have the right to instigate divorce: when the proposal originates with the man it is termed talaq; with the woman, khul’a. Where cruelty or desertion requires this course of action then arbiters for both parties are appointed from within the family to effect a reconciliation. When a divorce is pronounced, a waiting period, idhat, is set down during which the woman is permitted to remain within the house when it is hoped that a reconciliation can be made, and when it can be observed whether she is pregnant. Should she be so, then idhat will last until the delivery of the child, and the woman and child will be supported with food and clothing for a further period of two years.
Should divorce proceed, then the man may not take back gifts previously given to his wife whether these are marriage gifts, mahr, nor later gifts – this latter having a bearing on the characteristic shopping for gold jewellery; nor may he appropriate possessions his wife held before entering into the marriage. But there is another source of possession which the woman may take with her on divorce, and that is earnings saved from any employment she has undertaken.
It is the duty of the husband to provide adequately for his household. Conversely, there is no obligation for the wife to contribute to the running of the household, though it might be anticipated that a wife would or should do so if she has earnings from employment. The husband must organise his affairs in such a way as to provide for the adequate running of the household, and this includes the cooperation of his wife who is responsible for the day to day activities of the household and the education of the children. Herein lies a difficulty. There are notes elsewhere touching on the education of women and their role in the workplace; what is not discussed are the issues relating to their earnings.
Compared with men, women are obtaining a better education and staying in education longer. They are also moving out into the workplace in a number of Government ministries and, to a lesser extent, within the private sector, usually within family businesses. As a consequence, the Islamic family or household model is changing, bringing with it a number of novel pressures that must be accommodated by the evolving society, yet within the constraints of Islam. The ability to employ servants who will carry out household chores, drive the children to and from school, and act as nannies to look after them when the wife is unable to do so, establishes a pattern that is different from the traditional model where members of the extended family would often take these roles, maintaining a national and Arabic character to this operation. The absence from the household of a working wife complicates not only this traditional Islamic family model but has ramifications for the relationship between husband and wife with regard to the provision of funds to maintain the family. This latter issue affects divorce.
The various strains brought about by the novelty of a working wife may well be causative factors in the increasing divorce rate in Qatar, though there appears to be no empirical evidence to confirm it. Her increased educational and intellectual independence, exposure to external moraes through foreign travel, contact with expatriates and the influence of the various media, together with the ability for a wife to keep her earnings, prior possessions and mahr, give her greater financial freedom in seeking a divorce through khul’a. Yet Islam dislikes divorce and prefers reconciliation. Advice given to those seeking divorce tends to reinforce the need to stay together for the sake of the family, and may prescribe a series of actions the man should take in enforcing their marriage. Initially the two families of the husband and wife are enjoined to resolve the issues that appear to be precipitating the talaq or khul’a. The evidence of the Qatar divorce statistics suggests that this system is not working as it might. It would be interesting to learn which of the marriage partners is more likely to succeed in their determination to separate.
Following a divorce there is no responsibility for the husband to maintain his divorced wife. On her part she may not live alone but must return to a household either of her parents or a member of her family. It is the responsibility of the husband to continue to look after both the education and maintenance of the children, however, for a period of time – one governed by the different systems of jurisprudence and specifying times that differ between the ages of seven and the ages of discretion, puberty or marriage in the case of girls – children are usually in the care of their mothers.
The following may be of interest to those wishing to learn more:
The above index has been taken from the USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim texts.
The requirements for inheritance are set out in the Holy Quran. One of the verses dealing with this is quoted above, another – 4.11 – adds:
Allah enjoins you concerning your children: The male shall have the equal of the portion of two females; then if they are more than two females, they shall have two-thirds of what the deceased has left, and if there is one, she shall have the half; and as for his parents, each of them shall have the sixth of what he has left if he has a child, but if he has no child and (only) his two parents inherit him, then his mother shall have the third; but if he has brothers, then his mother shall have the sixth after (the payment of) a bequest he may have bequeathed or a debt; your parents and your children, you know not which of them is the nearer to you in usefulness; this is an ordinance from Allah: Surely Allah is Knowing, Wise.
And you shall have half of what your wives leave if they have no child, but if they have a child, then you shall have a fourth of what they leave after (payment of) any bequest they may have bequeathed or a debt; and they shall have the fourth of what you leave if you have no child, but if you have a child then they shall have the eighth of what you leave after (payment of) a bequest you may have bequeathed or a debt; and if a man or a woman leaves property to be inherited by neither parents nor offspring, and he (or she) has a brother or a sister, then each of them two shall have the sixth, but if they are more than that, they shall be sharers in the third after (payment of) any bequest that may have been bequeathed or a debt that does not harm (others); this is an ordinance from Allah: and Allah is Knowing, Forbearing.
The above listing is taken from the index to the USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim texts.
A common criticism of this division of estate is that related to a male child receiving twice that of a female. What is not understood in the West is that men have a responsibility to look after women and children that is enforceable in law, but what a woman receives is hers and hers alone.
When a woman is divorced she returns to her family who are required to look after her. Should she have a son she may also rely upon him for support in the fullness of time. Should she have no family she will be provided for equitably by the State although, in the past, this duty would have been assumed either by the husband, or by the head of the qabila to whom she belonged. Essentially she is allowed to leave the marriage with the effects that have been given to her before and within the marriage. This is said to account for the desire of women to have jewellery with which, to some extent, they are able to safeguard their futures.
A woman will also benefit at the death of her husband by a proportion of his wealth. The broad principles are laid down in the Holy Quran, but the details are expanded within the hadith. Distribution of a man’s wealth takes place only after all legacies and debts, including the funeral expenses have been discharged. In addition to a share in the property the widow is also entitled to her maintenance and residence expenses for a year. If the man’s parents are living they will receive a sixth each, and the rest will go to the children, a male taking twice that of a female. A widow will receive a quarter of her husband’s estate if there are no children, and an eighth if there are children. A husband will receive a half of his deceased wife’s estate if there are no children, the rest going to residuaries; if she has children the husband will receive a quarter.
Much of what I want to say about children will be found in other areas of this page, mainly in the part relating to play. The most important point to make are that young children, from an early age, tend to lead lives that are designed to teach them their roles in later life. This is not something that happens artificially, it is a natural consequence of following the precepts of the Holy Quran and hadith.
Boys and girls do play together to some extent, particularly up to the age of about four or five but, beyond that, their daily pattern – out of school where they are segregated anyhow – is governed by their following the household patterns of the men and women.
Boys, from the age of about six are encouraged to take their part in society and learn the business of their father with regard to the manner in which the father presents himself to the family and society. Sons are normally brought to formal and informal events and, while not encouraged to participate actively, are listened to if they choose to speak and, of course, are educated in the customs of the society through this device. The boys of the house, in this manner, take on the attitudes and seniority required of them and, in so doing, automatically adopt positions of public and private seniority to the girls of the house. It is noticeable, for instance, within the privacy of the family life, that the younger sons automatically takes on the right to order older sisters to fulfil the society’s accepted roles as providers and sustainers of the home, as is described in the Quran.
By Western standards, Qatari children can appear to be spoiled, being given expensive presents, toys and sweets on demand, and apparently being permitted to misbehave both by parents and, particularly, by servants. Lack of control, particularly of boys, causes significant behavioural problems in younger children and, incidentally, exacerbates problems such as medical and dental due to poor eating standards. But there is another aspect of the parent/child relationship that is peculiar by European standards, and that is the extent to which fathers will not permit their children to participate in activities that are considered to be dangerous. These activities will include skateboarding, swimming and a number of other areas in which Western children normally participate with their friends and, in doing so, develop not only motor skills and hand/eye co-ordination, but inter-personal relationships with their peers. It is particularly noticeable that this attitude appears to be related to better off families, or those who believe they have an important standing in the society. The reason given for this type of protection or paternalism is love for the child and the hurt that would be felt were there to be an accident.
One of the most pleasant experiences in Qatar is camping in the desert. Qataris generally love to take time there, particularly in the cooler months of the year when they can also take their hawks. It replicates, in some small way, the life of the badu and the traditions of hospitality, though without a lot of the hard work that typifies the life of the badu. Nowadays, as you can see from the first photograph, it can take a slightly different form but is no less enjoyable all the same. Here you can see that, in the centre of the ring of cars, an informal majlis has been organised. I have also seen generators and televisions used in this setting, but the main feature is the enjoyment of being in the open desert in the company of friends.
In the lower two photographs is shown a much more formal arrangement that replicates more accurately, though in a much more up-market manner, the real desert setting. This is not a family encampment, but one set up solely for men who meet and greet and talk in front of the khaima before moving into its shelter to enjoy the evening. In the lower photograph you can see the servants preparing the qahwa and shy with a row of polished dellaat reflecting the light of the fire.
The first four photographs to the right illustrate another aspect of life in the desert, part of a typical scene at a camp fire with a qahwadella being kept warm by the fire at night for the guests. Arabic coffee, green beans ground and roasted with cardamom, then served in small cups, is a staple drink in all social settings, the sounds and smells associated with its preparation adding to the feeling of comfort to those sitting around the fire or camp.
In the morning, this is the sight that greets the early riser with the Chinese pots and della in the morning light. But it is not just the sight of the fire and the different pots and pans that is evocative of life in the desert, it is also the smell of the fire and the taste of camel milk. Usually the milk is brought from nearby badu. It is interesting that their whereabouts always seem to be known as there never seems to be a problem for somebody going to fetch the milk.
Here is a close-up of a camel being milked with its calf looking on. The photo illustrates the usual method of milking, the teat being held in one hand with the gathering bowl in the other. Note the thick layer of froth being generated by the milking. Camel’s milk is considered to be one of the most important drinks to many who live on the peninsula. It is usually extremely frothy as both photos illustrate and, if you are lucky, still warm. The badu regard it as an extremely healthy drink and it has certainly been one of the staple foods, responsible for maintaining their life in the desert. It has to be understood how important life in the desert can be to many Qataris, particularly those of badu stock, and how central the role of the camel has been in helping them to sustain their life in the desert. This link remains both to those who use the desert to maintain their links with past traditions, as well as those who continue to live in the desert, often badu now employed to look after herds owned by others.
These two photographs illustrate the more refined version of the fire in the ground illustrated above. Fuelled by charcoal and, in the desert, scrub and camel droppings, these portable fires are common not just in the desert but, more usually, in the rooms of houses associated with the majlis. Where there is a separate matbakh for the preparation of coffee for the majlis, then this will be a feature of it. Its great advantage is that it is portable and, in the desert, can be brought into the tent at night to help keep it warm in winter. Similarly it is not uncommon for families to take them out into their garden and, as shown here in the lower photograph, use it for the benefit of friends and family. It is a normal piece of equipment in a house both in its use for the majlis as well as for the household.
Arabs, particularly badu have always been renowned for their hospitality, and this tradition continues not just for badu, but for Arabs generally and Gulf Arabs in particular. The name of Hatim Taiis known to all Arabs as the most generous of men. So hospitable was he that others were envious of a person so famous but with no kingdom, power or wealth. He was a man who even killed his only horse to feed a stranger. In this first photograph you can see guests eating a traditional machboos, eaten on the floor from a large dish on a sufra. As there are only a limited number of people who can eat round a sufra, a number of them being placed to accommodate all the guests, the host often moving between them to demonstrate his hospitality more personally. Where the guest might be a stranger to custom, or where the host wishes to demonstrate his hospitality more personally, the host will take the best pieces of the meal and place them in front of the guest for him to eat.
After the meal the guests and their host will relax and talk of matters of the day. Depending on how well each knows the other, as well as the importance of the evening, it is very common for guests to play cards or to watch television. News and commentary programmes are those which are particularly viewed and on which the conversation of the evening will revolve.
Where the camp is oriented towards hunting, the hawks will be brought to the edge of the khaima, or inside it, their handler grooming them, training them to be tolerant of company and preparing them for the next day’s hunting. It is not uncommon for the handler to sleep with the hawks in his charge. As I have mentioned elsewhere, hawks are valuable and an intrinsic element of desert life. Hawks and guns tend to be very familiar in this character of setting, as are salqan, though they are usually kept outside the khaima.
Traditions such as this have fed the badumajaalis for centuries. They reinforce the best qualities of badu life and create a template against which others can be judged. But, more than this they embody a range of qualities that characterise the badu.
The desert has a number of features that have had an effect on those who have had or chosen to live in it. To the Western eye it can seem featureless and harsh, but to the badu it has an infinite and various range of elements that have to be observed and understood in order for them to be able survive. In addition they have had to deal with other members of their tribe within their limited society as well as with the strangers they meet. This has made them extremely observant both of the physical as well as the psychological environment in which they live.
One consequence of this is that badu in particular and Qataris in general tend to be very observant and solicitous of their guests. Perversely this is not immediately apparent to Westerners, though Qataris will be aware of the mood of those they meet and, perhaps, more perceptive.
The observational skills of Qataris are far better honed than the average Westerner. There is a feeling that all Arabs dress similarly and that it’s difficult to distinguish one from another. In fact the simple dress of thub, iqal, kaffiyah and ghutrah contain many clues not just to style and wealth but also to the origins of the wearer. Accessories such as wrist watch, socks and shoes give other clues as does the manner of wearing the ghutrah. Gulf Arabs can see and draw the necessary inferences from these clues at a great distance, and this compounds the information we all may have in recognising somebody far from us by their outline, gait and behaviour.
In the construction industry my experience is that Qataris have an extremely good eye for any lines out of plumb or with a waver or eccentricity in them. They also seem to have an in-built compass enabling them to orient a plan immediately without looking up for their bearings. I had at first assumed that this awareness came from experience in the desert or at sea when they would have had, and would have needed to have had, a good understanding of the points of the compass for wayfaring and safety reasons. However, while it is evident that they know their position with regard to the points of the compass, talking with Qataris I believe that this understanding has more to do with their always knowing the direction of the qibla at Mecca, an understanding that is reinforced five times a day. It is interesting how different cultures make different assumptions.
These observational skills also form the basis of an extempore game I have seen played in the desert. Bear in mind that the desert looks, to a Westerner, more or less a beige colour: one Qatari will ask another to guess the distance from ‘the red rock there to the blue rock over there’ and a car will then be sent to drive the distance between them to see who has the closer guess.
It is similar in a way to another skill I have seen used where Qataris will travel from well to well in the desert and taste the water, comparing what they find for taste and quality when there appears to be very little difference, but where those differences are extremely important to them.
And I once came on a Qatari in the middle of the sand dunes in winter. He was standing facing a slight breeze with his head raised. I went over to him as a politeness and learned that he was ‘tasting’ the wind. He said it was one of the most pleasant experiences he had; to come to the heart of the desert and both smell and listen to the silence…
These visual, aural and taste skills must have been vital in the past and it is fascinating to see them still being honed.
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