“Lawrence, only two kinds of creature get fun in the desert: Bedouins and gods, and you’re neither. Take it from me, for ordinary men, it’s a burning, fiery furnace.
No, Dryden, it’s going to be fun.
It is recognized that you have a funny sense of fun.”
I wish I’d known this before I became a modern-day T.E. Lawrence trapped in the rolling dunes of Arabia. Unfortunately it wasn’t that dramatic, as the romanticism of early western exploration is long gone. Now it’s a veritable hotbed of natural resources and financial bounty. Arabia is industry and war, the dashing adventurers and Hemingway’s have been replaced by engineers and jar heads. Still, the mysticism remains, though you must look closely to find it. The Bedouins are still having fun believe me, for they have become the titans of their chemical keep, cashing in considerably and spending in the same breath.
I remember the moment I flew over the Qatari desert for the first time, I gaped at how far the land ran before meeting the tip of the horizon, ages of sand, wide and vast sprinkled with suggestions of civilization until arriving at a singular metropolis, the sun beating on the glass towers reaching out of the ground. I was once told that the word Doha, being the capital of Qatar is interpreted as the line where setting sun meets earth. I’m not sure if this is accurate as the dialects throughout the arab world differ, but still appropriate since a part of my life had set and now the sun was rising on a year long sabbatical in said place. I was twenty years old and had no idea what was ahead as I sat on the plane staring at the screen in front of me showing a small arrow pointing to Mecca. I heard bustling as a gaggle of young girls rushed past to the end of the plane, garments in hand. When they came back their t-shirt and jeans were now covered with dark robes and their hair hidden. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
I quickly looked down at my own clothes, was I too exposed? Will they arrest me? I held my breath as the wheels touched the ground, hands pressed on the already scorching plane window. My parents turned in their chairs smiling nervously at me, time to go. My legs were wobbly from traveling for the last two days so I got up slowly and walked to the exit. When first coming to the Middle East, it’s never a gentle welcome. The air hits you in the face–smelling of burning land, fuel and incense, it’s pungent and direct. I never felt eased into my experience there, at once I existed in it. Leaving the airport was a task of pushing through masses of labourers gathered at the entrance, wafts of cumin and various other spices seeping out of their pores, a violent assault on the senses. A car was waiting for us and I’ve never been more eager to get away, we drove out of Doha onto the long highway that runs between the capital and Umm Sa’id, the final destination. It’s about a twenty-minute drive through desert and a scattering of small fishing villages like Al Wakrah, where the pearl industry in Qatar originated. Pearling was their original source of revenue before striking gold in Terra Firma. Dhows (traditional Arab sea vessels still used today) lay on the shoreline. My eyes were fixed on the car window, pupils minute from the blinding white landscape, camels in the distance confirmed reality, here I was and here I’ll stay in this sandy alternate realm.
That was the beginning of my time in Qatar, my family lived there for several years and I went back and forth from my university in England. I resided in the in-between, from lush green to beige. Though our small house in Umm Sa’id became a place of comfort for me, date trees swaying in the backyard. I’ll always have an attachment to that side of the world, the smells of cardamom, the sand storms (Shamals) whipping and whirring the air, walking around the falconry in Souq Waqif while sipping on fresh pomegranate juice, taking in an I.M. Pei masterpiece and humming Christmas carols amidst the Singing Dunes. The meld of West and East in the huge malls full of all the comforts of home but marked with stringent reminders of where I was; it’s quite an experience to be shopping in the Gap while hearing the Islamic call to prayer. I developed a new tolerance living there, reluctantly letting go of many stereotypes and replacing them with an informed understanding. Looking back now, it is a memory that resonates beyond all-else, enduringly exhilarating, infuriating and I dare say fun; though I am neither Bedouin nor God.
A funny sense of fun indeed.