A letter to a 16-year-old girl going to live in Qatar

A friend from Qatar asked for my help with an assignment she got: enable a 16-year-old girl who’s moving to Doha, Qatar with her family to gain some cultural competency. She reached out to me because while she knew what it was like to grow up in Qatar, I had experience coming there as an adult and thriving. Here’s what I sent back, rewritten to be in the form of a letter to this 16-year-old girl.

I’ll call her Joanne.

Dear Joanne,

I hear you’re going to Qatar. I don’t know you, so I don’t know how you feel about it. Are you outraged at being snatched away from your friends? Are you excited by the idea of escaping America? Do you speak Arabic? Do you have Muslim friends?

I don’t know who you are, but I know people who have made this trip and come out more themselves on the other side, people who have lived and thrived and survived to become some of the most fascinating and kind people I know. I’m going to introduce you to some of them.

We can start with students at my old school. They traveled in packs between the Doha, Qatar and Pittsburgh, PA, USA campuses, flying for a week to visit Qatar campus or a week to visit Pittsburgh campus.  It is a mix of Western and MENA voices, but all written youthfully. Meet Qatarburgh, a blog of the IMPAQT program at Carnegie Mellon.

Joanne, I don’t know if to you books are an addiction and a solace, or a chore, but because I know of no other way to communicate with you than through words, I’m going to introduce you to some of my best friends:

Harry was a misfit in her green home country, too wild for its gentility and too gawky for its silk dresses. When family extinction drove her across the seas to distant relations, she was certain she would find no place there. But she did. She found that a place she’d never been was more a home to her than the one she’d grown up in. You should like Harry, and even if feminist fantasy isn’t your thing, you’ll get a taste of what desert and nomad culture is like. Meet The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley.

I don’t know what your friends are saying about Qatar, but I bet some mix of generalizations about how women are treated, what role religion plays in daily life, and how hot it is are foaming around you as you try to pack your life back into boxes. Maybe you’re hearing undertones of something odd in how your teachers say “Arab” or “Muslim.” Does it sound like they’re describing objects to which they can assign any meaning they want, rather than groups of whole people? You’ll be thrown into the thick of a nasty linguistic and semiotic war traveling where you intend to tread, and you’ll need a friend. Meet Orientalism by Edward Said.

I had read this book twice by the time I was your age, but because it’s about a man who could arguably be named a terrorist, I won’t rank this as required reading. It was also the first book I read about Islam as a political force and centers on one of the men who has most inspired me to become a writer. Islam as you’ll see it in Qatar has very little to do with Islam as practiced in most of this book, but many of the adults in your life probably first learned about Islam from this man’s presence in American history. Meet The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

This friend is kind of dotty, and definitely boring. It’s ranging and preachy and self-indulgent in its use of codified social justice language. But, you’re a girl, and in Qatar that may mean different things to you than it has ever meant in the United States. This book will be an antidote to the easy assumption that everything that bothers you about Qatar–from having to cover your elbows to having to drop your eyes–can be blamed on Islam. As if Islam was any more consistent between people and practices than any other faith. Hopefully, Mr. Said will have given you the language to explain that such generalizations are part of “othering,” but this should help you talk about gender and faith. Meet In Search of Islamic Feminism by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea.

My final introduction is the easiest to get along with, because it’s only meant for people taking a brief visit. It’s written for you, for people who have never been to the places which will become your new home but wish with all their hearts to understand them. It’s a back-pocket reference-guide for your first few weeks, and it holds within itself stories about nearby opportunities that will make for good night-table reading for months. Don’t trust everything you read, but get to know the bones of this one. Joanne, Meet The Lonely Planet Guide to Oman, UAE and Arabian Peninsula.

There are a few tricks my friends won’t tell you but which will ease your way. You made it through the bibliography and you’re still reading, so I’ll reward you with bullet-points:

  • It’s ok to talk to women who are wearing niqabs–you can tell their expressions by the crinkles in their eyes and how they hold their shoulders. It can be scary as a Westerner to feel like you’re surrounded by people in masks, but some of my best conversations happened with strongly modest women.
  • Don’t walk in the middle of the sidewalk, don’t make eye-contact with everyone, don’t smile at everyone. In America, we tend to walk down the middle of the street smiling at each passing stranger, and this just isn’t how the rest of the world acts, for men or for women.
  • WriteWrite write write write write. You can make a tumblr or write in a journal, but writing about what’s odd and cool and uncomfortable and great will help you figure out what’s happening around and inside you. For “write” you can substitute “draw,” “talk,” or “dance.” But do something creative with this experience, because it will change you and you’ll want to watch yourself changing.
  • Read some of the local papers: Doha News and Khaleej Times to start. Get a feel for how people speak in local politics. Learning to be tactful was one of the best things I got out of living in Qatar, and you’ll want to practice it soon if it’s not natural to you.
  • Visit a mosque. Like I said above, I don’t know if you have Muslim friends or if you are yourself Muslim. But if you don’t and you’re not, learn about Islam. In Qatar, faith is as plentiful and surrounding as music is in the United States. You’ll hear it in shops during the call-to-prayer, in conversation when people thank God for small things, you’ll see it in how people dress. Learn enough about the faith that you know why men’s thobes are cut a certain length and some women show the moon of their faces and others show their hair.

I feel like we’re wrapping up here. I’ve given you friends you can carry in your purse, and ways to make friends and avoid making enemies. I’ve given you some hints about how to experience your visiting-home-country and how to remember that experience.

The only piece I have left is perhaps what I should have started with: I’m sorry if you’re scared. I’m sorry if you’re hurt that you’re moving, or worried. I know there will be things that scared and hurt and worry you in your future, because they exist in all of our futures. But I’m not sorry you’re going to Qatar.

By living in Qatar, you have the chance to become an expert in one of the most misunderstood regions in the world. You’ll make friends with people who have been shaped by the entire world, not just the white-tipped northern bits, and who will surely shape the world they leave behind them. You’ll get sand in your teeth and hookah-smoke in your hair and you’ll be exotic for the rest of your life, if you let the experience change you.

Please let it change you. No one at 16 is exactly who they intend to be, and you can do more to decide who you are in a culture not your own than when surrounded by a culture constantly reinforcing who you thought you would be. Let yourself go. And let yourself find yourself.

You can do this, Joanne. I know you can.

With hope for the future,


Doha: February 2009 and January – May 2010

Oman: May 2010

UAE: February and March 2010

Cairo and Alexandria: May 2010, February 2012

Istanbul: February 2012

Lebanon: February 2013

Jordan: February 2013

Inspirational Quote:

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.”–-James Michener

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