Thursday, June 10, 2010

Skyping with Sarah…

Unexpected benefits come from moving abroad. For me one of the benefits has come through the use of Skype to connect with family. I was surprised by the impact this technology has had in my relationships with family.

With two sisters it is inevitable that you will have different relationships with each sister. Tess and I have always been close, and even though she is younger, I admire her and am proud of who she is. We are closer in age than I am to Sarah, and Tess always went along with what was happening and had a way of showing that she valued me (I hope I was able to do the same for her). Sarah and I had a different relationship. With a larger age gap it was difficult to find similarities to connect through. Sarah and I also seemed to have unexplained tension in our relationship that led to some version of sibling rivalry or sisterly “girl fighting”. I always loved my older sister, but I really struggled to like my older sister a lot of the time growing up. Living abroad has actually helped me build a much different relationship with her. In the last year I have felt a drastic change in my relationship with Sarah.

When I was making the choice to move to Qatar I was very concerned about missing out on all the big life experiences going on at home, most notably my new nephew! Before moving Sarah assured me that she and Mike would have Skype on their computer and they would Skype with me so I could see Augie (I did not know his name when they made this promise) and get to be an Aunt from afar. When Augie was born they followed through on their promise and I got to Skype with Augie regularly. Initially if I called when Augie was asleep Sarah would give me a quick update and I would tell her I would call back to see him later. The focus of those early Skype calls was always Augie. Slowly that started to change. I still Skype to see Augie, but I am surprised that when I don’t get to see Augie, I am just as excited to talk to Sarah. I look forward to the conversations I get to have with her every few days. I finally feel like we are having the “sister” conversations that we didn’t have when I was younger. Over the last few months I feel like Sarah and I have become friends (as I write this I am hoping she would agree… if not, I hope she never tells me that). When I want to talk about something going on in my life I used to either call Katie or Kelly. Now I usually talk to Sarah during my Skype calls.

At 26 I am excited that my relationship with my sister is better than I thought it could be, all because we are separated by half a world and have started communicating in a different way (with Skype). Now I feel close to both of my sisters :)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The World Cup is here...

Let the excitement for the World Cup begin! Sometimes I have to look around and laugh. Qatar and the rest of the Gulf Coast Countries do not have a team in the World Cup, so apparently the region has decided to support Spain. I have seen Spanish flags hanging from houses, being sold on the side of the road, and even in restaurant windows. There is not a large Spanish population in Qatar, it is actually really small, but for some reason Spain has been embraced by Qatar. You can even see a McDonald’s commercial with a guy in a thobe cheering for Spain as he orders his dinner.

With the 2010 World Cup starting in just a few days I have been thinking a lot more about Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup. While I admit to not knowing much about professional football or the business side of the World Cup, I can say with confidence that bringing the World Cup to Qatar in 2022 would be a bad idea. Admittedly, the bid is impressive – but not at all realistic. Lets look at some simple downfalls of the Qatar bid.

The infrastructure does not exist to host the number of fans that will attend the event. Yes there is a flood of five star hotels, but there is a drought when it comes to cheap or even reasonably priced hotels. Most fans would not be able to afford the trip and the stay. Additionally the highway system and the mass transit train system are in the planning stages with completion not set until after the 2022 World Cup. Many argue that these projects will be far enough along by the time of the World Cup to meet the needs of the event. Ok, lets think about construction in Qatar… not going to happen. I will use two examples for you: the residence halls that were scheduled to be complete in 2007 will not be done until 2012; the hospital set to be done in 2011 is now closer to 2013 (wait another year and it will be 2015).

Culturally Qatar is not ready for the World Cup. It is still considered inappropriate for men to wear shorts in the summer, the last set of pictures I looked at showed most World Cup fans in shorts (and several in much less). Alcohol is an unavoidable accessory to the World Cup. Right now you can only purchase alcohol in hotel bars and you cannot be intoxicated in public; I am not sure the culture of the World Cup can change that much.

Ok, this is a really serious point. Has anyone ever heard of the Qatar national football team? They have never even qualified for a World Cup. The citizen population in somewhere just above 200 thousand, to get a decent national team Qatar has to give citizenship to talented players. When you look at the roster of the national team, most of the players are from other countries (their bios say something like, Qatari National Football Player of Senegalese decent, Egyptian-Qatari National Football Player, or Qatari National Football Player - Brazilian. I know as an American I do not have much room to talk, my countries national myth is the dream of naturalized citizenship, but Qatar does not let individuals who were born in Qatar and have lived in Qatar for more than 40 years petition for citizenship. They only give citizenship if they need you (in this case to create a football team that occasionally wins).

Lastly, and what I think is the most important issue, bringing the World Cup to Qatar would perpetuate social injustices and send a negative message to the world. To build the magical stadiums Qatar promises to inspire the world with, thousands of laborers will be exploited. I am not going to go over my thoughts on labor laws again, but I do want to point out that by awarding Qatar the 2022 World Cup, FIFA will be at best turning a blind eye to labor issues and at worst promoting a system that underpays and mistreats workers.

If the World Cup does come to Qatar, we can all be happy we will not have to see these Dutch Fans. (well at least, we will not see these outfits)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I am telling it how it is…

As you may have guessed from previous posts, I am officially leaving Qatar on July 22nd. After a year of working in Doha I have made the decision that this is not the right place for me at this time. My ticket is bringing me back to Columbus, Ohio; however, I do not have a job. I am hoping to find a job in or near Columbus, but I am also open to working abroad.

Over the past few months I have held back on blogging about some of my experiences here for a few reasons. A major reason is that you can loose your job and ability to live in Qatar for saying the wrong thing… even if the “wrong” thing is a personal opinion or a proven fact. Recently there was an article in Time Magazine. The day after it was published one of the men quoted in the article was called into his employers office (I am employed by the same overarching foundation) and fired and told his Resident Permit would be canceled because they did not like what he said. The really sad thing is that he has lived in Qatar the majority of his life and will now have to create a home somewhere else. I also have not wanted to be overly negative about my experience when only aspects of my experience have been negative. Now that my decision is final – I am not holding back (ok, I am holding back a little). I am going to tell you what I really think.

Today I will start by telling you about my thoughts on labor laws that I feel are unjust. As an educated American I am unbelievably privileged in Qatar. It is relatively easy for me to leave the country. I do have to get permission from my employer to get an exit permit, but they say yes. Other nationalities, and less educated laborers are not as lucky. An individual in my office has been denied exit permits by my employer for fear that this individual might not return. Similarly, even though this employee has worked for QF for years and is in the same pay grade that I am, I am provided extra benefits because I was hired internationally. While this employee struggles to support their family, I have been benefiting from “extra” perks that I do not even need (i.e. free tuition for children at private schools). Even I have restrictions. I initially thought I would like to continue working in Qatar, but not for my company… No. When you leave a job you have to leave the country for two years before you are allowed to return. To return before that date you need permission from your employer… my employer did not say no, they officially did not say anything (meaning, they are saying No, but it is too much of a burden on the head of my department to take the time to give me an official answer – don’t worry a former professor gave me a No, and had no qualms about supporting unjust labor policies that limit professional growth).

Worse than restrictions on freedom of movement is the way laborers are paid and treated. Most labors in Qatar work outside, in the unbelievable heat, all day. Many are building the beautiful buildings that create Education City's campus (pictured above). They are rarely given breaks and eat their lunch on the ground. On my campus in the summer, labors are given a two hour break during the heat of the day (not a reduction in hours… they still work a full day, they just get a break in the middle), the problem is that during this break they are not allowed to go anywhere. You see laborers resting under date trees trying to utilize whatever shade there is in the grueling sun and 120 degree heat. These same labors are paid next to nothing. I cannot give you exact figures for these laborers; however, similarly paid jobs (albeit indoor jobs) would be paid in the range of 900 to 1500 riyals a month. On the high end these individuals are making $400 a month. Most of these jobs do come with housing, which saves money. “Housing” can mean a lot of things. The security guards that work in my compound and on my campus live in large rooms with 16 individuals. The room is the size of my living room with bunk beds around the walls. The center is empty and this is where they all eat together – the kitchen is shared by 4-6 of these rooms. As jobs move away from manual labor and begin to have interaction with Qataris and families, you do see some higher pay and somewhat better treatment.

This better treatment extends to being able to eat at a table and having access to air-conditioning during the very hot days. Service workers in Qatari homes often face abuse for not meeting their employers “expectations” or for attempting to flee. A friend of a man I work with is a driver for a Qatari family. He has a friend who had a intimate relationship with a neighboring family’s maid. This driver was beaten and seriously injured just for knowing about the relationship. His embassy had no ability to intervene on his behalf, and since he would have no ability to work in Qatar otherwise, he stayed working for the man who beat him. Physical abuse is a significant issue in many Gulf and Arab countries. Egypt and Jordan have passed laws to protect nannies and housemaids because of the rise in deaths and suicides connected to abuse. This mistreatment and unfair wages is not limited to those working for Qataris. Recently an American woman was looking for a nanny to work on Friday’s only (Friday is like a Sunday in the US; many have religions and family commitments on this day – but typically not work commitments). This woman had a fulltime nanny for the other 6 days of the week, but was just looking for “light” help with cleaning and child care for her child on Fridays. She was offering to pay 100 riyals. By Qatari standards this might be a fair wage for working on a Friday, but this was an American woman offering to pay $27 for a full day’s work.

Some of you might be thinking, “well the cost of living is lower, so the pay it ok.” That might be a fair argument if pay for all positions was adjusted accordingly; however, there is a significant pay jump from laborer positions to educated professional positions. This is true in the US, but not to the same extent. I am a “lower” paid professional in Qatar (I work in education… not oil or gas), and I make a base salary of around 13,500 a month; 10 time the amount of an average laborer and 5 times the amount of a highly paid laborer. In the US a skilled construction worker could make a similar salary to an entry-level educator – here not even 1/8 of the salary. Consider the additional restrictions placed on male labors. Male laborers are often only given Fridays off. This is the day they can do grocery shopping, relax and have fun. This is also the day that malls decide to be “family only”, meaning men cannot enter by themselves; they must be accompanied by their family or at a minimum a female. This is rarely enforced for western males, but almost always enforced for Asian Sub-continence males. Even parks are sometimes limited to families only, with the threat of getting arrested if a man enters by himself. So where do you find all of these man on their one day off? You find them at the souqs and one of the malls. Friday is “Man Day” at the souqs. Most of these men are on three-year contracts with “annual leaves” each year to see family. Sometimes they are allowed to go home to see their family, and sometimes they are not. So for potentially three years these men work for 6 days a week, with restrictions on where they can go on their day off, and the inability to leave the country. Yeah, the pay does not seem fair to me.

Labor laws in Qatar need to change!

(Hint… the next time I tell you what I really think the topic will be the World Cup!)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I didn’t see that in the news…

After moving to Qatar I view news in a much different way than I did while I lived in the US. I used to think that there was “conservative” and “liberal” news. I prided myself on making sure I went back and forth between CNN and FOX News so that I would have a well-rounded view of topics. As I write this I am laughing at the Annie of a year ago. I had such good intentions, but was so far from the mark I was hoping to hit. A year later I realize it does not matter if you watch CNN or FOX News, they both leave out so much and their views are much closer than either would like to admit (the spectrum of political positioning expands when you leave the US… in fact it is no longer a spectrum, maybe it is more of a cube). Now living in Qatar I am exposed to much more “meat” in news reporting that has helped me see how much I was missing before. That brings up a bigger question. How much more am I missing? Also, will I look back and myself a few years from now and laugh at myself for writing this post?

Doha is home to Al Jazeera one of the largest news sources in the world. Al Jazeera is depicted as a radical news sources that is in allegiance with terrorists. The truth is that Al Jazeera makes an effort to explore all sides of an issue. To do that, journalist have to be able to explore topics from different angels, they can’t be afraid to look critically at the claims of groups or individuals who are integral to an issue but who may be labeled as the “bad guys”. To many in the US this means they are supporting terrorists. I do watch Al Jazeera occasionally, but I realize I have been conditioned to expect news to come in 60-second packages. Al Jazeera goes in-depth into issues and news updates or stories may last for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour. When I find myself loosing focus, I switch to CNN International, where I am comforted to find 60 second to 5 minutes of news on a topic and then they move on. If you watch for over an hour, you hear the same stories several times. It is exactly this type of news reporting – the news reporting I find myself being pulled towards because of my impatience – that prevents the in-depth exploration of issues. Yes, American news stations (CNN and FOX) as well as CNN International have special shows that go more in-depth, but on the whole successful news reporting is done by grazing the surface, highlighting two controversial or polarizing views and quickly moving on. When watching international news sources (Al Jazeera and BBC News) I have noticed that all sides of an issue are addressed, but no effort is made to represent sides equally. If one side needs more time to be explained and fully understood, than the time is taken to give the background information. (I do need to note here, that while CNN International reports news in short clips, it still goes much more in-depth than most US news stories, and it spends less time on fluff stories and more time on “real” news).

Today while speaking with my sister I experienced first hand how the reporting of major world events is treated differently. As we all know over the weekend there was an Israeli military attach on a Humanitarian Aid ship headed toward the Gaza Blockade. I have watched news stories of this on both Al Jazeera and CNN international. I have seen videos of the actual event and heard interviews with individuals from government, the general public, from all over the world. My sister mentioned that is was a “lead” story given a few minutes and followed quickly by Al and Tipper Gore splitting up. Well – I have missed out on the breaking news of Al and Tipper Gore’s relationships status, but I am more fully informed of the many issues facing Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and the surrounding countries. This is one example of many that have shown me how blessed I am to be exposed to more in-depth international news.

As I start the process of transitioning back to a life in the US one of things I have to consider is remaining well informed of international topics. To remain (or become in some instances) well informed I know I will need to become more active and engaged in the news process. I cannot sit on a couch and watch CNN and FOX News for an hour or so, and think that I am informed of major news stories. I know I will have to search the Internet for alternative new sources. I may need to spring for the expensive cable package that includes international news sources (and possible petition my cable provider to provide access to Al Jazeera). I hope I have the energy and sustained passion to do this, because it would be really easy to slip back into my old news habits.

Monday, May 31, 2010

So, how did you meet?... Oh, we are cousins.

In the last few weeks I have heard about several Gulf Coast Nationals marrying cousins. Today when speaking to a colleague when I asked how he met his wife, he simply stated her father is my uncle. It was the most natural thing in the world for him to just state this. Another woman stated that her husband was her cousin and felt this was an advantageous connection for her future as his wife. I know I am coming from a very, very, very, American perspective when I say the following: gross.

Consanguineous marriages are common in Qatar (and the Gulf region) and this is an issue that supposedly is being addressed by the Qatari government. Marriages within close-knit communities often lead to people being too closely related, and to intra-family marriage. Up until relatively recently the geographical and tribal make-up of Qatar has necessitated marrying those you might be related to; however, in the past 100 years or so the culture plays more of a role in family marriages than the desert. This issue is a hot topic right now with the government and in the academic context.

The government is considering policy changes, and has already approved some measures, that are meant to decrease and stop marriages of those to whom you are genetically similar. The problem is that the culture works in direct opposition these changes. If you want your son to only marry a woman who is “pure” and has an intact reputation, what better way to assure this than to have him marry a cousin who you have seen grow up and know how she was “controlled”? If you want family connections to remain strong what better way than to have your daughter marry the son of a powerful uncle? Another major reason for the marriage of family members is the restriction of women’s social lives. Most women primarily socialize with other female family members. If you are looking for a wife for your son, because your son can’t date, what women have you interacted with? I am sure there are much deeper reasons for these marriages, in my short time in Qatar these are the only reasons I have seen first hand.

Over the past year I have learned more about the genetic consequences of marrying someone with genetics that are too similar to your own than I ever thought I would. This topic comes up surprisingly often in the Gulf. I have seen posters related to this topic. Medical experts have come to lecture on this topic. Newspapers have run articles several times this year on this topic. Even with all of this attention on the subject and recent government regulations, there will be a wedding this weekend between cousins.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Here comes the Qatari bride…

Yesterday I was able to attend my first (and most likely only) Qatari wedding. One of the women I work with was getting married and she invited all of the women in our office to attend. Two days before the wedding she passed out very fancy invitations with our admission tickets. You might be thinking this is late notice… this is normal notice in Qatar. You might also be asking, “a ticket for a wedding?” These are big events; tickets are checked at the door by security.

When planning for the wedding I asked around about what I should expect and what I should wear. I was told by more than one person that there was no possible way for me to go overdressed, so I should wear my most fancy outfit, and if at all possible it should be shinny. Another individual told me that no one will be looking at me, and they all want me to look at them – so in the end it does not matter what I wear. I ended up wearing the dress I had made in Doha (thankfully it was a little shiny) and great jewelry.

The night of the wedding we arrived at 9pm for an 8pm wedding (we were told it does not start on time and getting there at 9 is fine). We found the building and began looking for the ballroom. As we walked down a hallway toward the conference center, we saw a female security guard and asked her. She said “this way” and we walked past boards and screens shielding the door from view. Once around the boards the wedding was obvious. We when to the registration table where they checked our invitations and took our tickets. My purse was searched and the camera was taken for the night. At this point we were granted entry to the wedding. This might also be where the excitement ends.

Once inside you find a place to sit – and then you sit. We sat for about an hour and a half before the bride arrived. The room was a large ballroom filled with tables set for 12. About halfway into the room, dividing the room in half, was a cat walk that lead to a large stage. The cat walk was white and skirted in white. The backdrop to the state was really bright hot pink velvet wall draped in white tool. Sitting center on the stage was a large “Roman” style white couch with hot pink draping. While we waited for the bride the sisters of the groom and some family members danced on the “cat walk” area. Occasionally they were joined by a few other guests, but it was mostly family dancing. The women were dressed mostly in very fancy ball gowns that ranged form bad prom dresses, to dresses that could rival those on the red carpet for the Oscars. A few women at tables were covered in the typical black, but most were dressed up for the event. At one point an announcement was made in Arabic and the women rushed to their seats and pulled black abayas out of bags and covered quickly, wrapping scarves over their hair. This announcement was a false alarm, and not man entered the room. The women began taking of the garments and dancing again.

Around 10:30 the announcement was made again, and this time it was the real deal. Almost all the women in the room covered with the exception of myself and the two other western women present and the groom’s sisters. I realized when the bride entered with the groom and their fathers that the groom’s sisters did not need to cover because they were related to the men. The bride was dressed in a beautiful, but very ornate dress. The dress had a large skirt with hoops, and the dress reached the stairs before the bride, so she had an attendant who would lift her skirt so he could get up the stairs. Several pictures where taken with the bride, groom, the groom’s family and then the bride’s family. The sister of the bride was fully covered, including her face. It was obvious she did not want her face shown in the picture, but it was also obvious the bride wanted her sister in the picture. At one point the father of the bride whispered to the sister, and very quickly her face veil was lifted and she smiled (though clearly unhappy) for the pictures. The father’s then left and another announcement was made in Arabic. The sister’s of the groom rushed to their tables to cover and the bride’s brothers began entering the room. One of the groom’s sisters could not get her abaya unbuttoned and she bolted for the emergency exit to assure she would not be seen. More pictures where taken, and eventually the men left the room.

This is when the party began – kind of. For many of the women in the room this is when the abayas came off and the dancing began. For most of the room… it was still just sitting and watching. The bride was carefully perched on her sofa watching the festivities, and would remain seated until the groom returned to take her away for their wedding night. I was amazed by the dancing. Some of the dancing was traditional Arabic dancing that you might see in a cultural video… but some of the dancing could of come out of any club/bar in the US frequented by college students. When these women are alone and free to act as they choose, they let loose, and absolutely enjoy themselves. I watched for a while until it was safe for me to give my regards to the bride and quietly exit. This celebration would go on well into the night, even after the bride had been taken away. It was definitely an experience.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A little bit of Hope...

This week came with a pleasant surprise. A Hope College admissions representative was coming to Doha to recruit students. Adam Hopkins worked in admissions when I was a student worker there; so I was excited to meet up with him and hear how things were going at Hope. He would only be in Doha for a few hours, so I met him during one of the college fairs.

While listening to the college fair speaker I was able to overhear some comments and hear some questions. Here are my three favorite:

  1. 1) What is Liberal Arts? – this is actually a really good question, as that is not a concept that is common in the region, it was just a shock to hear it asked.
  2. 2) If my child changes majors, will you get our signature first? (This family stood up and left after the speaker explained that it was ok, and common for students to change majors, and in fact he had changed his major three times.)
  3. 3) If the colleges ranking drops can we get a refund? (Mind you, this question to an individual college representative came shortly after another representative explained to the whole group that college rankings are very arbitrary and rarely hold much significance.)

On top of the surprise of getting to see a representative of Hope, I learned through Adam that there was another 2006 alum in Doha, Ann Durham. I was able email Ann and we met up for lunch. It is amazing how small the world really is. I would never imagine that a college as small as Hope would have two young graduates in Doha, let alone two graduates from the same year.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Darling it's better - down where it's wetter - take it from me

Divers Surfacing

Maybe the title of this post is an overstatement, but I will say that is scuba diving is better than I expected. I have been afraid of water, and specifically “living water” (not Jesus, but water with fish and other living things in it), for as long as I can remember. When I get in water that goes above my chest, my lungs feel tighter, my heart beats faster, and I start looking for ways to get out. At one point in my life I could swim somewhat well – I was on the swim team as a little kid, but this fear eventually made it so I could not swim (until this past fall when I learned again!).

Two things happened earlier this year that lead me to work to overcome this fear by learning to scuba dive. First, Oprah had a show about women overcoming fears and becoming more adventurous. Second, Timika and Rory invited me to go on a trip with them. When discussing possible trips one jumped out as the perfect option.

Goa, India is a short plane ride away (okay – short compared to flying from the US to India… only 4 hours or so from Doha), and had many options for learning to scuba dive at a reasonable price. With our minds made up, we reserved the trip, booked the classes, and I began working through my fears. As we got closer to going I starting thinking of backup plans – I brought cards to play solitaire while everyone else was underwater. Timika kept calming me down and promising it would be fine. With that comfort, I boarded the plan and we were off to start out adventure.

We flew out late Thursday after work, and flew back early Sunday before work – so there was no need for us to take any vacation time. We landed around 4 am and began our Indian adventure. While some of you might be picturing the packed streets of Mumbai and the crazy traffic, Goa is much different. It is a region of India with wonderful landscape, trees, and the Arabian Sea. The driving was a little crazy… but not bad at all compared to Doha, and the city was crowded with people, but not too many. In all it was “India Lite” compared to what I had expected – I had built up an idea of what India was based on images of major cities, and was somewhat relieved to see that my preconceptions were wrong.

Travel Gnome taking the PADI class

Friday began with breakfast outdoors overlooking the ocean – amazing!. We then caught a taxi to the scuba center. Timika was already Open Water certified, so just Rory and I would be taking the classes, as we worked towards becoming Scuba Diver certified (we can dive 12 meters with a master diver or instructor). I will admit that at one point in the long morning of watching video training, I fell asleep. I jerked my head awake just as the video was saying “and that is the regulator system.” I remember thinking “shit, the regulator is what you use to breath and now I know nothing, shit…” Thankfully, after the video classes and before the practical classes in the pool, the instructor reviewed the equipment again.

Instructor Andy

My instructor was Andy. Andy is a big British guy with substantial tattoos. He was likely in his last 40s, possible early 50s, and looked like an ex-navy seal. Even with his tough exterior, he also had the energy of a kindergarten teacher, incredibly patient and kind. It turned out that he was a member of the British forces (no idea which forces), but he sadly has never been a kindergarten teacher.

Rory and I were joined in our classes by a 12 year-old boy and 14-year old girl. I started with the false assumption that at least these kids would have more trouble than me. Oh, I quickly learned that not to be the case. In our first pool session we geared up and go ready to kneel in the pool (the pool was only 4 ft deep). I started to freak out, but eventually got my head under the water. My breathing was incredibly fast and my chest was tight. I lasted a few breaths then stood up. My instructor calmly got me to come back under water. For the first half of our pool session, I kept standing up in the middle of skills… WARNING… YOU CANNOT STAND UP AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA AND EXPECT TO BREATH AIR. After messing up a breathing skill that involved switching between a snorkel and the regulator, I started having a minor panic attack (I say minor because I have no idea what a bad panic attack looks like, but I am almost positive it would be worse than what I felt). I stood up and refused to kneel back down. The instructor had his pool aid hold onto my back and wait with me while he tried to convince me to go back under the water. Eventually I agreed and completed my class.

Things did not look good as I got ready for my dives on Saturday. I studied Friday night so I would know the technical stuff. We got geared up and I was waiting to step off the boat. I was hesitating and kept shacking my head no. Andy waiting in the water signaling me to jump in, never pressuring me to jump… although Timika told me later she considered pushing me in. Once I jumped in and signaled to the boat that I was ok, Rory jumped right in, and we were ready to begin our dive. Andy had told Rory that he was going to hold onto me and Rory should just follow behind until I was ready to go on my own. I didn’t argue with this approach. As we swam to the back of the boat to follow the anchor line down, I felt very anxious and was considering backing out. Eventually was grabbed the line and got ready to go under. This is by far the worst part of scuba diving. As you start to go down your mouth is underwater while your eyes are above water. Breathing through the regulator does not make sense when your eyes see the open air. I stopped fighting and went under. I kept my eyes on Andy and slowly descended. I stopped every meter to make sure my ears were ok, but I was breathing and that is all that mattered. We left the anchor line, made sure we could maintain our buoyancy underwater and began swimming. I never took my eyes off of Andy and just focused on breathing. About 15 minutes into the dive I realized I had not looked around for Rory or looked for any fish during the dive. I tried to find Rory but could not figure it out. Andy gave me to ok sign and pointed to where Rory was behind us. At that point I decided my only job was to keep breathing. After several more minutes passed, Andy gave us the signal to accend and we began kicking our way up. I was very relieved to reach the surface. Once on the top and back in the boat we realized we had finished well before the other two dive groups. Our 45 minute dive, ended at 30 because Rory was low on air… to be honest I was glad it ended.

We got ready for dive number two. This dive was a skills dive. We would be tested on some basic skills prior to exploring the world under the sea. I was more confident going into the second dive and even looking a little forward to it… but I was not looking forward to the skills tests. I passed the first few surface skills and we began going down. Once at the bottom we deflated our BCDs so we were resting on the sea floor. Rory began by doing his tests, and then it was my turn. The first test was to fill your mask half way and clear it. Success. The second test was to fill the mask all the way and clear it. Fail. I panicked and could not clear it. I began breathing in water and freaking out. I gave the trouble signal followed by the up signal. Nothing… Andy did nothing… what kind of instructor is that? I gave the trouble signal and up signal again and didn’t wait. I started going up. As I was going up I kept trying to clear my mask and trying to clear the water from my breathing. I felt Andy grab me and hold me from going to the surface. He signaled what I should be doing and mimicked the steps I should take. When I cleared all the water from my mask and the regulator, he signaled for me to calm down and breath normally. HELL NO. I was freaked out, in case you didn’t know, you are not supposed to breath underwater. He was very calm and gave me time to start breathing normally. After about a minute he began bringing me down. Once on the bottom he signaled for me to finish my test. I signaled, No. Eventually I calmed down and did pass the remaining tests (and did pass the test I initially failed). After calming down and passing the tests, I was able to somewhat enjoy the dive. We saw many fish and rock/coral structures. Even with all of this, I was just focused on breathing. This time when we surfaced, we completed a full 45 minute dive.

It was not until several hours after I finished diving that it set in. I overcame my fear and learned to scuba dive. It was not as bad as I thought it would be… but it was not as great as some said it would be. While some think fears are irrational, it does not change the fact that your body reacts to that fear. I hope that in the future I will be able to dive again, and be able to make it one step farther in completely putting this fear behind me.

Rory (above) Timika (below)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

I am 26!

My first birthday in Doha has come and gone. I have to admit it was a mixed day. Leading up to my birthday I was upset that I did not have a really close group of friends to celebrate with, and I was hoping the group of friends I have started to make in Doha would make the time to celebrate with me. As my birthday approached no one said anything, and I was not sure what the least pathetic way of brining up my birthday would be. As a kid it is fair game to talk about how you want to celebrate your birthday, as a college student it is assumed your sorority sisters will celebrate it with a night out, as an adult it is not that easy. Eventually I just emailed the people I wanted to celebrate my birthday with and asked if they were up for going to dinner.

It ended up being an amazing birthday! I went to dinner with are great group of friends at the Iraqi restaurant in the souq. It got even better when we went back to Timika and Rory’s for homemade cookie-cake (thank you Timika)! If that was not enough, the next day at work Timika brought in an American style birthday cake. To most of you that does not sound like a big deal – but it is really hard to find a simple birthday cake in Doha. Timika went above and beyond to make sure my birthday was special, and I am so grateful. Birthdays in another country can be really amazing, but they can also remind you how far away your family and best friends are.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Papa turns ninety…

I was so excited when I found out I would be able to attend NASPA this year. Yes, in part to being able to attend the best conference of the year, but more importantly, because it would allow me to be home the weekend before my Papa’s ninetieth birthday.

I have never known my Papa when he was healthy. Just prior to my birth he had a stroke while getting open-heart surgery (there is a story to this, I am just fuzzy on the details – but it involves the doctors screwing up). I never believed I would be able to have 26 years with my grandfather (ok – 26 years in less than a week). So for us to be celebrating his 90th birthday as a family was VERY special. Mimi and Mom planned a beautiful dinner in the Dublin Retirement Village private room. Everything looked beautiful and the dinner was wonderful. There were 11 of us for dinner (Mimi, Papa, Mom, Dad, Sarah, Josh, Annie, Tess, Loretta, Mike and Augie), a perfect number for a family celebration (I guess however large your family is will determine the perfect number).

Papa was very happy and seemed to love every minute of the celebration. We each told stories of our favorite Papa memories and he kept saying “you are being too kind by not telling the bad stories.” I am not sure what stories he is referring to, but my stories were simple moments with Papa that meant something to me. Following dinner we ate Mimi’s homemade angel food cake with green icing – Papa’s favorite.

I know I have said this in several posts, but I really am lucky.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Adults struck dumb…

It is amazing how grown adults can sit around a table and loose the ability to speak intelligently. This phenomena was experienced at my “fake birthday” celebration while I was home in the US. Since I would not be with my family for my birthday, they all decided to have a small birthday dinner before I left (this was a difficult task considering all the other planned events going on at the time). We gathered at Sarah’s and had a causal night with pizza – a perfect way to celebrate. All 7 adults in the room sat sitting and staring at Augie as he stuck out his toung and blew raspberries. We then started sticking out our toungs and blowing raspberries… for about an hour. It was the best hour ever! I am not even kidding you when I say, “this kid is cute.” I could stick out my toung and blow raspberries all day with him.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I love the windy city…

The main purpose for my trip to the US was the annual NASPA conference (student affairs conference) in Chicago. This was perfect for me because Chicago is one of my favorite cities and is home to some of my favorite people. My time in Chicago was FULL; full of work, full of friends, and full of fun.

My first night in the city I was picked up at the airport by Katie and Paul. For those of you who do not know Katie and Paul, they are one of the most amazing couples out there; they are generous, kind, and fun. We grabbed dinner and went to Second City! I love Second City! The show was “The Taming of the Flu,” and it was really funny. My favorite skit was the whole cast singing about winter in Chicago. As they sang about the bitter cold and crisp wind that stings you, I was thinking about the pleasant extended fall (I can’t even call it winter) that has just ended in Doha. While I am not looking forward to the quickly approaching inferno that is summer, I could not help but feel happy at not having just experienced winter in the windy city.

Another night later in the week I was able to meet up with Audra, Katie and Tessa. I miss girls’ nights. It was like the best parts of college without the classes or the drama. We stayed in, ordered dinner, and just talked. We are each at such different placed in our lives, but we still connect as easily today as we did in college. While I can make new friends in each city I live in, I am not sure if there will ever be a time when I have the same type of friendships that I have with the girls I lived with in college. That being said – I truly enjoy my friends in Doha.

In addition to meeting with college friends I was able to meet up with a friend from high school, Karen. A lunch together ended up being 4 hours. If I had not had to go to the airport, it could have lasted even longer. I wish I could have a profession where it was my job to just travel around the country (world) catching up with old friends. Does anyone know if that job exists, and who would pay you for it?

Now to the purpose of the Chicago visit: NASPA. First, conferences are so much more work than actual work. Second, it is not a good idea to spread a conference out over three different venues and only give 15 minutes between sessions (10 of those minutes are spent talking and figuring out where you are going next, leaving only 5 minutes to get there). Even with that all said; the conference was wonderful. My favorite speaker was Condoleezza Rice. She has this way of speaking that draws you in and makes you feel a part of the story she is telling and makes you feel like you can easily understand all of the information she is sharing. I know she will not run – but she should be our next president. We should all plan on writing her name in when we vote in 2012! Another great speaker was Ebu Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core. He spoke of the importance to recognize the whole student, and to do that you have to be able to recognize and engage with faith – all faiths. So many times faith is separated out from the educational experience, but all that ends up doing is creating an environment where students are not asked to engage with others of different faiths and where students feel like they have to suppress their faith identity. I love what he is calling for universities to do and I hope faith becomes a part of more conversations.

In addition to seeing some great speakers I was also able to facilitate a panel. I have presented at conferences before (smaller conferences), but I have always given lecture style information sessions. That is a thing of the past… I loved facilitating the panel. I know the audience benefited from the session because we were answering their questions. We were able to share a great deal of information about being female student affairs professionals working in the Middle East in an easy format. While I did prepare ahead of time, all my hard work was not needed. My pre-planned questions and copious notes on each panelist were not even used. There was never a lull in the participation from the audience and the panelists did an amazing job of jumping in and answering questions. While maybe not on the same topic, I do hope I can facilitate another panel next year.

Monday, March 15, 2010


The opportunity came up to head to the US early to help interview candidates for an open position. On Monday I learned that I would be approved to leave early, and decided to tack two extra days onto the trip so I could surprise Josh for his 30th Birthday. So on Monday I booked a ticket for Thursday night!

One of the hard parts of living abroad is missing the big events in your family (Augies’ birth and baptism, Thanksgiving, and other important days), so when I realized I would be in the US a few days after my brother’s birthday, it was a no brainer to leave earlier to surprise him for his birthday.

The trip home was rough – four flights with delays and cancelations. I eventually made it to Port Columbus very late Friday night and was happy to be home. I spent that night with my sister and the next day I got to hang out with Augie. Saturday night was Josh’s party which Tess and Sarah had spent months organizing. As they got the room ready they learned from one of Josh’s friends that Josh has known about the party for about a month… his friends can not keep a secret. Even with the surprise spoiled, when Josh entered the room he faked a good surprise. Then he turned and saw me. Very quickly the fake surprise turned to confusion and then genuine surprise. It was wonderful! I am so glad I could share his 30th birthday with him.

The party was a huge success at Schmidt’s, a genuine German restaurant in German Village. Josh and his friends love the German food and beer, and everyone enjoyed the company.

The next night we had a family celebration for him. I am continually reminded how blessed I am to have my amazing family. Sure, we are a little messed up and possibly a little crazy, but there was more love in that room than I could express in words. On top of having a loving family, I am blessed to have all four of my grandparents.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The "Boot Scoot"

I am sorry for the delay in blog updates. Over the last two weeks I have been focusing on one thing that has been stressing me out. I do not want my blog to turn into a rant out something I can’t change – so I decided not to blog until I had something positive to write about.

This past weekend I was able to go to my first ever “Boot Scoot.” Growing up in the north, this was an unheard of tradition. The evening started with some great Tex-Mex food and good conversation. Soon after dinner the music start. Things changed quickly. The tables emptied and the floor filled. My table was left with two others and me. We were talking and learned we were all from the north and had no idea what dance everyone was doing on the floor. We shared that thought that somehow we missed out on something because we grew up in the north. Everyone from age 20 to age 70 knew the dance and danced it well. After talking to some friends I learned that Boot Scoots and Two-Steps are normal in Texas.

Most of the evening I spent watching people of all ages spin around the floor and having an awesome time. When Dave and Karen rejoined the table Dave offered to teach me to Two Step. At first I was really nervous because it looked fast and complicated. He assured me it would be fine, and I cautiously got up to join him. As I left the table I made sure to tell his wife I would not intentionally break her husband toes. Dave explained the basics and off we went. It was actually not that bad. I looked at the floor for the first half the song, but by the end I was actually able to look at Dave while dancing. I quickly learned why evening, no matter the age, was enjoying the event.

Later that evening I had a flash back to a middle school dance. We all remember some point in our lives where we danced with someone and when the music stopped, one or both of you ran away. For me I always think back to my fifth grade sock hop when I danced with Brian Cook. To be honest, I do not even think I got to the end of the song. Well, I relived a middle school dance when Justin (not the Justin I work with) asked me to dance. The dance was good, I only stepped on his foot once, and he only lead me into other partners twice – but in all the dance was fun. As soon as the music stopped he turned and ran away. I promise you, when you are 25 it is even more awkward for this to happen than when you are 13. I stood there for a second and then went to talk to other people, all the time wishing that moment had just been taped. Even as I write this I know none of you will truly be able to appreciate the awkwardness of this moment. The gift that I received for this moment is that now I am no longer embarrassed for ending my dance with Brian Cook early (for real, I was 11 – that is a good enough excuse).

There was another amazing moment from the night. You all know the “Cotton Eye Joe” song. For me this song reminds me of sixth grade gym when one of the groups in class did their gymnastic routine to this song (I think it might have been Megan Rapp’s group). Now that memory will forever be replaced. Apparently at Texas A&M there is a dance that is mandatory for all students and alumni to learn and dance in unison together anytime this song comes on. It is actually really fun – but I was not expecting it. The song came on, and all of a sudden the dance floor turned into lines making spokes of a wheel. Every one began moving forward, then backward, then forward. Everyone was pivoting around the center of the room and having a blast. To make this even better, out of know where everyone started saying “Bull Shit” at specific points in the song. After the song ended I asked several people why they said “bull shit,” and the answer was always, “because you do.” I am not saying I wish I went to TAMU, but I do think I would have had a great time it I did.

So the “Boot Scoot” is the good thing I have to write about. The rest of my life is going well. I am working a lot – too much, and am amazed at how quickly the semester is going. I promise I will not let two weeks pass without another post. Although, then next several weeks will be CRAZY, so don’t expect too much.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Worst commercial ever…

So when I say worst commercial ever, I mean this commercial promotes so many problems in our world. Let me walk you though this commercial.

Picture just about any somewhat cluttered living room. A mother is sitting on a couch with her feet up. You cannot see her face as the camera is positions right behind her. A maid is sweeping the room with a broom in simple clothing. Two teenage girls walk into the room and get “bratty” faces on as they tug at their perfectly acceptable clothing. They are each wearing nice jeans and decorated t-shirts. The mother then turns the TV to the home shopping network and “clicks” the remote. Each time she clicks the remote something changes. The room gets decorated a little more, the oldest daughter is now wearing a dress with jewelry and has her hair curled. The younger daughter is then dressed up and her hair is straightened and her outfit and jewelry are now “cool”. Lastly, the maid is “clicked” and she is dressed in jeans and a plain t-shirt and now is using a new vacuum to sweep the room.

Wow – The first message I got from the commercial is that regular clothing is not good enough. The second message I got from the commercial is that “even if we treat our maid like shit, she needs to look good enough and have good equipment so we look ok.” The third message I got was that money does not matter; you just have to click. On top of that, I learned that you could do all of this with no effort simple by staying on your couch.

I am not commenting further. Please make with this commercial what you will.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Seeing the conflict from another perspective…

Today I joined one of my CDAs who was attending a speaker on her campus. The speaker was addressing the topic of the Jordan River and the prominent role of water resources in addressing the Arab –Israeli conflict. Anyone who has spoken to me about world politics knows that my “trigger” topic is the Arab-Israeli conflict. I have strong opinions on the topic (which I believe are well founded and based on information gathered from multiple sources… yet there is probably some emotion mixed in there), and I could talk for hours about various aspects of the issue.

I went to the speaker excited. Not only was I able to learn something new about a topic I am genuinely interested in, but I was able to share the experience with a student who was equally interested. My CDA invited many other students, but was a little disappointed when none joined us. Despite the let down, we grabbed our seats and prepared for a great lecture. I did learn a lot – nothing drastically new, but more detailed information about water in the directly affected area, a topic of which I only had general knowledge. The speaker based his lecture around the Johnson Plan (from the Eisenhower administration) and its lasting impact on water issues in subsequent negotiations, and its application to currently efforts. As someone who considered myself well versed in this particular political topic, I was surprised at how little I knew about the past and current efforts to address water while addressing the overall conflict. I am so glad I went, because I can look at the issue from a whole different perspective.

One thing that surprised was the comments made during the question and answer session following the lecture. I tend to lean pro-Palestinian when it comes to the issue, and at times get really frustrated with Israel (I know, why should I get frustrated, I have absolutely no power to affect the issue and am not directly influenced by the issue… I should not let it frustrate me… but I do). When listening to speakers or having conversations about the topic my ears perk when I hear pro-Israel statements or blatantly biased or unfounded statements. I was impressed that this speaker really addressed this topic from a resource perspective and the impact on all involved. He did not “take sides” and if anything “called out” Israel on its unethical usage of water (meaning subsidizing water costs for Israelis while creating a system that raises costs for refugees and others in the West Bank, and allowing a system of water usage where illegal settlers use 6 times the amount of water as legal inhabitants of the West Bank). I was shocked when most of the comments were challenging the speaker for taking Israel’s side. What? I did not see that at all! After thinking about it, here is my explanation for these reactions. The individuals responding to the speaker come from a demographic that is connected to the conflict in a much more personal and cultural way (the respondents were all Arab, one was Egyptian, one identified as being from the Gulf, and the other two I only know they are Arab but not more about their background). They also appeared to have very firm views of the issue, that may more may not be tied to “information” but that are clearly tied to “emotion”. It might be that by the speaker not opening stating that he was against Israel, they assumed that he was pro-Israel. I do not know if this is the case, but it did help me understand why these individuals might have reacted as they did. I am glad I was able to attend this lecture in a different environment that had people who were so passionate about the topic. I am excited to attend the next lecture about politics in the region.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Thursday is the new Friday…

So it is a Thursday night and I am sitting at home blogging. Wow – I am a winner. For those of you who don’t know, Thursday in Qatar is the same as Friday in the US. (some Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia, have their weekend on Thursday and Friday, while others, like Qatar, have their weekend on Friday and Saturday). Sadly I have found that my Thursdays are surprisingly similar to my Fridays in Philadelphia. There are not a lot of things you can do on your own, and it is hard to get a group together for things, so many Thursdays end up with me watching a movie.

This weekend I am also blessed to be “On Call” otherwise known as duty. This means that even if there are things going on, or a group getting together, I can only go if it is close to campus. Most of the time this is not the case, or whatever is going on is happening at the exact time as something for work. I signed on for this – I know this is a part of the job – I only give up about one weekend a month… that is not that bad.

On a really great note, I started mentoring a third grader at Qatar Academy. Abdulla is my mentee, and he is great. He is this quiet kid who is so proud of his role in his family. He is the oldest male in his generation (this is a BIG role). He talks with such excitement about his little brother and how he “guides” him. Mixed with this pride is also a good portion of shyness. He usually looks down right before he says something he really wants me to comment about. He says something (while looking down) then he pauses and looks up and waits until I say something. He is awesome! He is also a wealth of knowledge. He is Qatari and Bahraini. He has passports for both countries. The first time I met him he looked at me with a serious look and said, “I will use the Bahraini passport now, but my dad told me to use the Qatari passport when I am older.” In addition to sharing his knowledge about citizenship he is taking skiing lessons in France (for real… he flies to France for lessons… I have not figured out how often) and he is an avid fan of wolves, and is planning of reading me something about them. He was going to read about them today, but we got to caught-up in our game of Monopoly. The game was going well, but he kept lecturing me. “Annie, this is a game of buying, you have got to buy, buy, buy.” I promised to keep that in mind the next time we played. He asked that if we played again could we use credit cards instead of money because it would be so much easier. Oh he was not raised in the Schuster household. I did not get my first credit card until I was 22, and I am still afraid to charge anything unless I know I have the money in the bank to pay it off. I will make sure to keep you all updated on the fun things I learn from Abdulla.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Just a shout-out to some friends...


Today I had a conversation with a student that reminded me how lucky I was to find my best friends in college. Two friends in particular came into my life at perfect times and were able to experience some good, some bad, and some great things with me. The student I met with today has been experiencing some typical transition issues to college, but also some other personal and academic issues. I think back to my transition to college and how difficult the start of the second semester was. My first semester was a constant high. Everything was new and exciting, and I loved it all. As the second semester started I began to realize that the “newness” has died away and I was left with the life I had created in my new environment. I had met acquaintances, but had not built strong friendships or joined lasting organizations. This was the semester the homesickness set in.

Annie and Kelly at Homecoming

I made it through that year and worked hard my second year to build strong relationships and find things to be involved with. That is the year I met my two best friends from College. Kelly and I met through sorority rush, and ended up joining the same sorority. Katie and I met through the ride board, and ended up studying abroad together – then we were in the same sorority together. I hope for all my students that they are able to meet two equally amazing friends.

Katie and Annie in Vienna (Katie cutting my hair)

Thanks Kelly and Katie!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

A call to prayer…

Living away from family and away from a culture that openly accepts Christianity, I have found that my prayers have taken a different form and role in my life. One of the best parts about living in the Gulf is that prayer is a sensory part of your everyday life. You hear the call to prayer regularly (if you are lucky you sleep through the first), you see prayer on the side of the road, in the social rooms at work, and you read the label “prayer room” in every building you enter. Pray is valued in a much more public way than it is in the United States and in Christianity. I am not claiming that prayer is more important in Islam than in Christianity, but it does take a different and more public form. Being in this culture has helped me to grow my prayer life in a unique way. Prior to moving here prayer was either a private experience that happened as more of a mental conversation with God than through devoted prayer, or a ritualistic aspect of a worship service. My pastor may not appreciate me saying this, but in the prayers I experienced during worship I lacked that heart connection that I gave to my personal prayers. Now I continue to pray privately and spontaneously, but I also feel more empowered to talk about prayer, have devoted prayer experiences that are less spontaneous, and to communicate to others through prayer. In some ways I am amazed when I think it took moving to a Muslim country to help me build my Christian prayer life.

Today while waiting for a meeting with a student I experienced the most beautiful call to prayer since moving here. CMU students select one student each year to do the call to prayer in their building. I believe students who are interested nominate themselves and then student vote on who they believe has the most beautiful voice. I have had the pleasure of hearing this particular student give the call to prayer a few times, but today something was different. First you need to picture the CMU building (in the images below you can see the main lobby/entry area of the building).

The student who gives the call to prayer stands on the walkway that crosses the lobby at the second floor level. He positions himself centered, cups his hands to his mouth and as he gives the call to prayer he raises his head up toward the third floor and ceiling of the building. His voice fills the building through natural amplification. The building is full of movement as students and staff go about their day, but despite this hustle the building seems to come to a still. I wish you all could have experienced this with me; it was truly beautiful. As he finishes, the stillness of the air returns to the commotion of a lunchtime gathering place and the day continues as if this moment of art was completely normal. It takes me a few minutes to remember that it is.

Following my meeting I was able to talk to a friend and was reminded of the importance of prayer. Justin’s (Texas A&M Justin, not the Justin I work with) grandmother had to have extensive heart surgery a little over a week ago and is still in the hospital recovering. I, along with probably hundreds of others, have been praying for her and his family. Additionally I have been praying for Justin. I learned shortly after moving to Doha that one of the hardest things about living far away from family is that you are not able to be there for important moments. I remember getting a call from my mom letting me know that my Grandpa was in the hospital and she wanted me to know that the family was all going up to see him. In that first call she did not say anything specific, but there was something about the way she said it that let me know this was not a simple trip to the hospital. A few phone calls later from both my mom and dad I realized it was possible that my family was going to say good-bye to my grandfather – and I could not be with them. I was able to eventually make a phone call to the ICU, but it was not the same. There is a sense of comfort that comes from facing things while in the presence of family. You don’t have to talk; sometimes just being there is enough. When you live abroad, you do not have that ability to give or receive comfort through your presence. You come to depend a lot more on words – phone calls, email, anything – but more than that you depend more on prayer. Thankfully my Grandpa made an amazing recovery (I believe in part due to my sister being pregnant and the drive to see his great-grandson, and in huge part to prayer). While talking to Justin today I again offered my prayers for him and his family, but also offered myself prayer. My prayers offer me a connection to others when I physically am not there. Of all the gifts I get through prayer, this is one of the greatest; it is like God finds a way for your spirit to be filled with comfort the same way it would through a hug or through being in the presence of family during a difficult time.