Dinner in Doha

Note: This post introduces a new occasional series of life vignettes, those moments that sometimes surprise, humble, or humor us; often teaching us in the process.

My first visit to Doha, Qatar occurred in 2003, and the city reminded me of the wild west in many ways. It had changed radically by 2012 when I returned for the first of many trips over a two-year span. Over the course of those visits, I gained a different perspective, awareness, and appreciation for a part of the world that was foreign to me in every way.

The Old West in the Mid East
That first visit came as my wife and I were on vacation, visiting family in Bavaria. Then the phone rang, and I was off in a different direction, to Doha. It really was like the old west in some ways. The city center was mostly the old quarter. The gleaming Intercontinental Hotel was a remote island surrounded by a sea of sand and an hour’s drive from anything or anywhere. I didn’t arrive with business attire, so needed to do a bit of quick shopping. Directed to a large indoor mall, I found it very modern with all the best labels inside but also virtually empty. Walking through it felt like an eerily somber experience. The next morning, I set out for the company office, located in a set of villa homes an hour in the other direction. Basically, everything was an hour away, no matter where you started from. My overall impression upon leaving a few days later was that things moved slowly, doing business seemed chaotic and organic, planning was not a primary consideration, and relationships were everything.

A Completely Different Place
By the time I returned nine years later, much had changed. There were modern towers everywhere I looked, especially in the Diplomatic District. The streets were broad avenues, some eight lanes wide on each side, and filled with a potpourri of vehicles spanning the breadth of the automotive universe. I recall once being awakened in the early morning hours by the roar of mighty engines. Looking down from my high perch, I watched exotic cars race through those broad streets, engines roaring and tires screeching. So, the wild west was still there, it had just grown up a bit.

The city was different though. Its culture was on display and construction cranes filled the skyline. Doha was in the midst of a building boom, as if an entire city was being created out of nothing, which wasn’t far from the truth. There were several large shopping malls, gleaming car dealerships, and marinas filled with yachts. Doha was growing up, including experiencing a few growth pains. Imported workers weren’t treated well, for example, and there could at times be a scent of cultural arrogance if one cared to take notice. But, generally speaking, it was clean, energetic, vibrant, and on the move upward. I enjoyed getting out and experiencing a different society, touring and dining at Souq Waqif in the old quarter (wonderful ethnic food at outdoor cafes) and the upscale Tatel in Lusail. I was uniformly impressed with the collegial respect I experienced and observed.  I noticed how similar families appeared, how mothers loved and cared for children, how respectfulness was taught and expected, and how education was elevated as part of the engine of change that was sweeping the country. Then one day I had an unplanned and serendipitous experience that confirmed my faith in humanity.

Rescued by the Roadside
One summer afternoon I found myself stranded, an hour away from the hotel and no driver in sight. He called to say he was looking for someone to come get me, but it didn’t sound encouraging. I had contacts at a nearby U.S. university and was about to start walking in that direction when Saied pulled up next to me and asked if I needed assistance.

Saied was a lead engineer on our project, and I had been in meetings with him throughout the day. It was the first time I had met him, however, although the project was several months underway at that point. As I stood there, he offered to take me to my hotel. As much as I wanted to accept, I knew he lived an hour in the opposite direction. Accepting his gracious offer would have meant a three-hour drive for him to get home … in Doha … in summer … at the end of a long day. I couldn’t do it. I demurred. He insisted. Finally, I gave in and got into his car.

We got acquainted as he drove through the stifling commute hour traffic, and it happened that we got along quite well. We represented two different worlds, two different beliefs, nearly two different everything’s, but by the end of the ride we were enjoying each other’s company and laughing over shared experiences. As he pulled up in front of the hotel, he asked me to join his family for dinner one evening on my next trip over. I was stunned, then I was humbled.

Dinner in Doha
I enjoyed the variety of food I had experienced up to that point. Fish I’ve never heard of, traditional mid-eastern meals at a traditional souq, hole in the wall family restaurants, and even a good Texas BBQ place owned by an American couple. It was all good, but none of it prepared me for the evening with Saied’s family.

We arrived at his home that afternoon to find his wife in the midst of preparing the meal while managing a toddler, pre-teen, and early teen as they bustled around the house. It was the normal low-level mayhem familiar to most households, and I think that actually helped me relax a bit. I was definitely out of my element. After introductions, his teen daughter went to help with the meal while the men of the house, including the two-year-old and his older brother, gathered for talk. I learned about their family and shared mine. We talked soccer (I knew nothing) and baseball (surprisingly, they knew something). I learned about their generational journey, and they learned a bit about mine. In the process, we discovered we had much in common in these, despite the stark differences of our cultures. The oldest brother was wide-eyed at my descriptions of everyday life and my two sons and their lives.

When dinner time came, we moved to a well-set table full of mid-eastern fare. I think there was only one dish that I didn’t recognize, and I could tell from the appearance and aromas that Saied’s wife was a good cook. I wasn’t wrong on that, but the real surprise came at the beginning of the meal.

As we sat around the table, Saied called the family to silence, then said a short Muslim prayer of thanks. Then, as we lifted our heads, he asked if I would like to say grace in my own way to my God. I hadn’t known this was coming and I am sure the surprise showed. Then we bowed our heads again and I thanked God for his love and care for all of creation, for his heart that reaches for ours, and for the graciousness of my new friends who were willing to invite into their home one much different than themselves. I thanked him for the love I felt in that home and blessed their family.

Then dinner was on, complete with its learning moments, laughter, and fellowship. We discussed in plain language our beliefs about God and the world, and we ended the evening with hugs all around. I promised to bring a Dodgers cap to my new ten-year-old friend on my next trip, and he promised me a seat at his hockey match. We both delivered.

My Doha experiences changed my perspective of a people I would never have felt kinship with if I had not been there. We live in a big world, much bigger than it seems. We don’t all believe the same thing, but we are all human. We have the same needs, the same dreams, and the same troubles. We aren’t that different. Sometimes it is good to be reminded of that.

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