What if?

What if the chaos of Brexit turned into something darker, more chaotic than we ever imagined?  

What if our government did a u-turn on Brexit? What if there was a general election and the far right gained ground as a result? What if there was widespread civil unrest?

What if ISIS saw an opportunity to breed even more chaos? A series of suicide bombs or shootings. Handled poorly. A weak prime minister, an angry public, a power vacuum. A civil war. 

What if it a civil war happened? What would you do? Would you fight? Would your sons fight? 

Would you leave the country? When? At the first signs of civil unrest? Decide it’s not the place you want to bring your kids up any more? How quickly would you find a job somewhere else? What if you have elderly parents? You’d stay for them, right? Or your kids, you’d want to keep them in school. Or maybe your eldest is 150 miles away at University. Nothing bad’s happened up in that part of the country, and you need to keep the home fires burning for them, at least until they graduate. You’ve paid off 15 years of your mortgage, you don’t want to leave the house you’ve worked so hard for. It would be financial suicide to just disappear and leave the house empty with no way of paying off the remaining bank loan. This stupid war won’t last forever, you think. But the gunfire gets closer every week. It’s not long before you start to fall asleep to the soundtrack of guns pop-popping away somewhere in the distance every night. 

What if the local hospital gets taken over by militants? Or the school? What if you go into work one Monday morning and the office has been shut down permanently? What have you got left to stay for? What if a bomb went off in your county? In your town? Your street? What if you held your neighbour, fatally injured, helplessly, as her children looked on in horror?

What if you decide now that it’s time to leave the country? Who will you take with you? Your elderly parents? Your stubborn eldest son, who is away at University and determined to stay and fight for what he believes in? Your cat? Your dog? What will you take? How big is the biggest rucksack that you can carry? What will you put inside it? What’s your plan? Where will you go? How much money can you take with you? How much will it be worth in other countries? 

What if other countries start saying no to British passports? What if you can’t just get on a plane? How will you get to Dover, with all the fighting that is going on in London and the Home Counties? Will you even make it as far as Kent?

What if France has closed the border? 5 million Brits have already crossed into France and France’s public services are struggling to cope. What if the Channel Tunnel is closed and the ferries have stopped running? How will you cross the Channel?

What if you meet a man in Dover and he offers to take you and your family across the Channel for £2,500, do you accept? What if you rendezvous in the stillness of breaking light, just before dawn and he takes you down to his dinghy and then demands another £1,000, before you find out there will be 35 other people in it and actually, there’s no driver and one of you is going to have to pilot it yourselves? 

What if you make it to France? Has your bag made it as well, or did it get thrown overboard in the panic as the dinghy started to take on alarming amounts of water? What if you arrive in France with nothing except your mobile phone in its waterproof case and a small waterproof money box around your neck? What happens next? Where will you go? Will you walk, or try and sneak onto a train or a bus? What’s your plan? How much money have you got left? Where are you going to get income from in the future? When? Did you bring your educational certificates with you, or did they go down to the bottom of the Channel with your rucksack? Can you speak French? When did you last have a wash? Change your underwear? When did you last have a comfortable and unbroken night’s sleep? 

What if everything you had ever worked for; your career, your house, your car, your savings, your kids’ education, your hobbies, suddenly became utterly meaningless. What if you had to start all over again?

I am back in the UK on holiday at the moment and I’ve just watched the first part of ‘Exodus’*, a brilliant documentary on BBC2 following the journeys of a handful of Syrian refugees as they cross from Turkey to Greece and make their way to their chosen destinations. There is no ‘story arc’, no dramatisation, no voice over. It’s just the immigrants themselves telling the story in their own words, with some of the footage being shot on camera phones given to them by the production team. There is a family who ran a restaurant in Aleppo, who want to get to Germany, a well-educated English teacher who speaks perfect English who (obviously) wants to get to England, and another teacher trying to get to England (who also has very good English) ,who left his wife and two daughters back home in a Daesh-controlled town while he tries to get established in the UK before arranging for them to make their journey. Heartbreakingly, he gets a call from his wife while he is a recording a piece to camera, a call which he has to take because it is so rare that she gets chance to phone him, and she sounds terrified and unable to speak openly. The pain that shows across his face during and after the call reveals just how broken he is inside while trying to hold it together enough to get to England. 

In contrast to my Syrian friends in Qatar, I’ve always had the warm comfort-blanket of home waiting for me back in the UK. I’ve never really needed my comfort blanket, but it’s nice knowing it’s there. If I’ve ever felt lonely or weary or ungrounded or fed up with Middle Eastern life, a quick trip back to my homeland and my faith is restored. 

But the UK feels like a dark and cold place at the moment. As my fellow blogger, Nat High, so brilliantly captured in his blog recently, it doesn’t feel like going home any more. Brexit has shone a torch into the darkest corners of our country and we’ve found some monsters hiding under that warm and cosy bed. As I’ve struggled to come to terms with what that means, for the country, for my family and for our future, I’ve done a fair bit of catastrophising, although I don’t really think the scenario I’ve outlined above is realistic for Britain. But, in the same way that most people are only one or two pay cheques away from being made homeless, Brexit has shown me that Britain is only potentially a few misplaced steps away from being plunged into crisis. It’s given me a new outlook on the refugee crisis. The irony that some sectors of the ‘vote Leave’ camp were motivated, in part, by a fear of those Syrian refugees is not lost on me.

*Exodus Part 1 was shown on BBC2 at 9pm on Monday July 11th and should be compulsory viewing for everyone on the entire planet.

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Things I miss about Doha

Well, this should give you all a laugh, I thought to myself as I dreamt this blog post up in the car (NB I was actively driving at the time; as opposed to idly staring out of the window in stubbornly unmoving traffic. Yes, that’s right, we have left Doha. And moved to Abu Dhabi, where the traffic actually….flows…. which, to be perfectly frank, is why I am not on Twitter so much any more).

Moaning about Doha is something of an expat hobby (the champions being, of course, Brits – oh how we love a good moan). As soon as you tell anyone in Doha that you are moving to Abu Dhabi, you get told how much you will simply LOVE it: “It’s sort of in between Dubai and Doha, you know, more relaxed than Doha, but without all the ‘jazz’ of Dubai…I used to live there/my friend Sally/Bill/Ed/Sheila used to live there five years ago – you will LOVE it”.

But hey, guess what Doha peeps? There are a few good things about Doha which I am already missing, even though we only left a month ago. Please, pick yourself up off the floor and allow me to list them:

  1. Al Rawnaq

The crazy death-trap of a place situated in an underground cavern, with an entrance hole somewhere near Al Ahli (and, rumour has it, extending underground as far as Al Wakra). You post on Where, When, How Doha that you need something so obscure that you are certain that nowhere in Doha will possibly sell it….and you will get 15 people all telling you (correctly) that it can be found in Al Rawnaq. No doubt the place will probably go up in cheap-Chinese-lead-filled-paint-fuelled raging inferno one day (and swallow the entire district of Bin Omran with it), but until then, fill yer boots.

2. AquaArt on Salwa Road.

OK, this is a bit specialist. I am an aquarist and this is an AWESOME aquarium shop. They have good knowledge, good products and such an amazing selection of fish that I could actually kill an entire summer’s afternoon in there entertaining my toddler twins FOR FREE. Beat that, Abu Dhabi.

3. Decent compounds.

Who knew? Doha’s nicer compounds, such as the Al Fardans, Al Messilahs and Al Jazis, absolutely blow anything over here out of the water. And there’s also nothing like the Pearl here. I know the Pearl has its haters, but we absolutely adored living there. With hindsight, the architecture was actually pretty cool and the balconies on the apartments were often amazing, and the cafe culture and shopping just kept getting better and better.

4. Freedom of speech.

I’m being very careful how I word this blog post. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?

5. Souq Waqif, the new Souq at Al Wakra, and the MIA.

I know, too obvious. But they were special. I miss them.

6. Hamad International Airport.

Well, Doha, you waited long enough. And now you have it… a lovely big, shiny airport (and a teddy bear. Let’s not forget the teddy bear). It’s stylish, it’s practically-designed (apart from when it rains) and it’s comfortable. And let me just say this: They don’t do that stupid thing any more when they x-ray your bag BEFORE check in. Remember that particular joy in the old airport? Hmmm? Well it’s not disappeared from the Middle East altogether. Grrr.

7. Ambulances*.

*Ambos for the Aussies among you.

I’ve done my fair share of moaning about the ambulance service in Doha in the past, but at least you used to see them. They seem to be a rarer sight here (perhaps because of the much smaller-scale nature of public healthcare – it’s not like the Hamad system). Someone on our compound called an ambulance for a child and was told to take them by car as it would be quicker, and Facebook replies suggested that wasn’t exactly unusual. Doha is now dotted with ambulance outstation posts, which is fantastic and should be lauded.

8. Old Navy.

OK, so I am scraping the barrel now. I never even liked anything in there anyway. And we have Pottery Barn over here, which absolutely whoops anything Doha has in the way of homewares into oblivion, so that cancels out the Old Navy thing anyway. Abu Dhabi 1, Doha 0.

9. Traffic policemen on roundabouts and intersections.

HAHAHAHAHA NO NOT REALLY. You can keep those Doha. Please. Oh and you know what else you can keep? Motorcades.

Why Doha needs to learn to walk before it can run a Metro

I’ve recently gone back to work again, but hey, don’t congratulate me – it’s actually easier than being at home with toddler twins all day. Somehow I had previously managed to avoid traffic problems, for pretty much the entire 4 years I’ve lived in Qatar. Whether consciously or unconsciously – I just don’t tend to go out on the roads during ‘rush hour’ (NB there are a lot of rush-hours in Qatar!).

Of course, all this has now changed, with me having been plunged, screaming and kicking, into the chaos that is the 7.30am traffic, as I drop the kids off at nursery and try to get to work on time.

On my very first day, I arrived smugly at work early, having figured out a short-cut – well, it was more of a long-cut really – that was a total traffic-beater, which is no mean feat in this town.

But getting to work in the car is the easy bit. The biggest challenge I have is parking and then walking to the office. Parking is a huge problem in Doha. Literally every single mall, clinic, school and office seems to be built without adequate parking, a hugely baffling situation when you consider that D-town is being built from scratch and the car is king in this country.

Ironically, the place where most of my new colleagues used to park, has now been swallowed up by the development of a new metro station. Metro development has this year stepped up a gear, all across Doha, with the red line, gold line and green lines all well underway. There are 21 huge tunnel-boring machines currently in action beneath the city streets, and roadworks and diversions catch us all out across the city as new stations and bridges are being created.

The new metro system is absolutely vital for Doha, which is suffering from severe traffic problems. The first lines are eagerly anticipated to open in 2019. But the use of the metro is going to require a huge change in the mindset of people here, not just from the potential passengers, who I am sure will need some persuasion to ditch their much-loved cars, but also from the authorities.

Of course, if people are going to leave their cars at home once the new metro starts running, they are going to have to undertake at least part of their journey on foot. Whether it’s from home to the nearest metro station, or from the station to the office, there is going to be some walking involved. I’m not entirely sure how that’s going to work out during the steamy, hot summers here, but I presume they managed to address that when the Dubai metro was built, and I am naively hopeful that it will also be addressed here in Qatar.

No, the thing which bothers me the most about this new metro, is that walking anywhere in Qatar, regardless of the weather, is incredibly difficult (if not impossible sometimes) and downright dangerous. And I just can’t see this being addressed in the next four years before the metro opens, because there doesn’t seem to be any attempt to even start to deal with it yet.

I can recall in detail every single time I’ve tried to walk anywhere in Qatar. There was the time, not long after we moved here, that we went to see the fireworks on the Corniche on National Day. We walked from Al Messilah. It was only about 3 miles, and it was definitely quicker than trying to drive through the crowds, but it was a total eye-opener as to why nobody ever walks anywhere here. On a more recent National Day, we parked up close to the Corniche and attempted to walk down to the parade area with our twins in their double buggy. It was impossible. You thought walking anywhere was bad? Try pushing something on wheels. The last time we ever attempted walking anywhere again was when we went to the Red Bull Flugtag in the MIA park about 18 months ago. While Ashgal had proudly declared the revamped Corniche road network finally open just a few weeks earlier, we were shocked to discover what a dangerous and unfinished state the pavements were in. Factor in our toddler twins and the whole experience was genuinely scary.

It’s part of the reason we have moved to the Pearl. We lived on compounds before, which you could walk around, but it was never as safe as you’d hope, because of speeding idiots. It was also kind of boring walking around the same compound all the time. At least on the Pearl we have, for now, the only truly mixed-use residential and pedestrian-friendly development in Qatar. The boardwalk around the marina is completely pedestrianised and very safe for our twins to run around in and we can even walk to a supermarket! 

So what’s wrong with walking elsewhere in Qatar? It’s actually nicely summed up by the short walk I now do every day, from wherever I manage to park my car, to my office. Every single day, without fail, no matter where I park (and therefore which route I walk), I encounter the following hazards: 

Cars parked on the pavements. 

 Yes it’s illegal, and yes they do dish out tickets in some parts of Doha, but it’s still pretty ubiquitous. And yes, we’ve probably all done it in desperation at some point. But it’s no fun to have to walk into the road, especially on a bend, as I do when I walk this route.

 
A random sinkhole.

 I’m not sure this photo does it justice. This one is so deep that I actually need to walk around it to avoid tripping over. The pavement is sinking! Probably caused by problem 1 (see above). Again, pretty common.

 
Bits of crap left lying in the middle of the pavement 

Just to keep you on your toes. Who is responsible for this stuff? Nobody, it would seem. Imagine trying to push a baby in a stroller along this street.

  
  
  

You might look at the next photo and wonder why I don’t just walk around these obstacles. Well, see those slightly darker grey/black tiles among the grey ones on the left of the pavement? They’re marble. It turns out that if you put just one foot on them, you go flying. I found this out the hard way. Yes, let’s put really, really slippy tiles on a public walkway.

 

Using the pavement as a construction site.
You might think this is a one-off and specific to where I work. It’s not. This is Doha – there are building sites everywhere. And I don’t know who is supposed to regulate this stuff, but they seem to get away with spilling out all over the surrounding pavements (and often roads too). Words cannot describe how dangerous this is. The stuff they leave lying around is dangerous. I’ve ripped a long skirt on some of it, and probably could have ripped my leg open if I wasn’t being careful. Every morning, I walk past someone using an angle-grinder here, right in the middle of the pavement. He’s not wearing any PPE and he has absolutely no regard for anyone walking past. I am just grateful that I never need to walk anywhere with my kids. Although it would be nice to have the option.

  

The pavement coming to an abrupt end.

This is also very common. Sometimes, it’s designed in, and sometimes there are physical barriers in the way. How is this allowed to happen?

  

Dearest Doha, I love you, but you have got to address this! How is anyone going to use the metro when even a 100m walk is fraught with such dangers? Not to mention, the place looks a mess with all this construction stuff everywhere. There needs to be a massive crackdown on construction sites violating pavements and roads. The pavements need a complete overhaul almost everywhere in the city. Even when new ones have been built, they quite often end abruptly, or don’t link up to anywhere useful.  There are very few places to cross the roads safely. The city roads are generally multi-lane highways with speeds to match. Try taking children out with you, and you’re not going to get very far at all. It needs to change. We’ve got 4 years. Let’s make it happen.

3 years ago today.

3 years ago today, I was newly pregnant with twins. I’ll admit, I was terrified. I had sought out the support of the Mums of Multiples network and just a few days earlier, had been to my first meeting.

At the meeting, I’d met three fantastic ladies. One of them was Nicola, who was also at the same stage of pregnancy as me. We were to go through our pregnancies together, leaning on each other for support (sometimes literally) and had our twins within 24 hours of each other. Another lady, Trish, had twins who are much older than mine. She is like the mother hen for all of us with multiples; she guides us, supports us, visits us during those difficult newborn days. She is our rock and we all love her.

The other lady I met that day was Jane Weekes. She hosted the Mums of Multiples gatherings every month. I nervously entered the house and immediately relaxed. It was filled with love and warmth and happiness and giggles. It was a wonderful sort of chaos; there was writing on the walls, toys everywhere, toddlers tottering around giggling and playing. I will never forget it. This house was ALL about the children. They outnumbered the adults and it showed, in the best possible way. It was truly a wonderful home and it was clear that at the heart of the home were Willsher, Jackson and Lillie, Jane’s triplets.

Jane offered me a drink and I told my story while her triplets tumbled around with Trish’s twins. I was absolutely terrified about carrying twins, I’ll admit it. Motherhood was a daunting prospect anyway, but I had no idea how I was going to cope with pregnancy and then two babies. TWO babies. It’s a mantra I kept repeating over and over in those early weeks.

But meeting Jane and Lillie, Willsher and Jackson that day reassured me completely. I started to realise what a blessing it was to have multiples. Their house was such a wonderful place to be, the kids were so completely adorable and funny and so different in their personalities and Jane was obviously revelling so joyously in parenting them. I left that day feeling truly touched by the Weekes and it completely changed how I felt about becoming a parent of multiples. I knew life was going to change drastically, but I could see it would be for the better and I looked forward to going to more multiples meetings with these awesome, inspirational ladies.

A few days later, I checked Twitter and saw that there was a fire in Villagio. As the day went on, it became clear that it was a serious fire. In the absence of any live news reporting on either the TV or the radio, I saw the whole thing unfold on social media. 

I went to bed that night wondering how many of the rumours were true and hoping and praying that everything was going to be OK. My pregnancy meant that I often woke up during the early hours, and I remember checking my phone in the dawn light the next morning. That was when I learned that Jane and Martin had lost the triplets. Sobbing, I woke up my husband, not knowing what to do with myself. I’d only met them once, but the grief was overwhelming. How could those vivacious, wonderful children that I’d met only days earlier, be gone? I couldn’t process it. How could they all be gone? How could Jane have lost them all? How could a fire have killed so many people? How could so many of them be tiny, innocent children? None of it made any sense. It still doesn’t.

As I watched on social media that day, there was an outpouring of grief. I was really taken by how Jane and Martin coped with it, by taking their grief out into the community and grasping the support of others, some of them friends and others complete strangers. I don’t want to say it was brave, because that sounds trite and patronising and I’m sure they just muddled their way through it all without being terribly conscious of anything, but it showed a raw strength and courage that few of us have. I wasn’t able to attend the vigil that was held at Aspire Park the day after, because of my pregnancy, but I saw through social media the horror of what the Weekes were suffering and how the community came to support them during this most horrific of times. There are upsides to living in Doha and the tightknit community feeling here, in the absence of our families, is one of the most significant. The Kiwi community performed a Haka at the vigil and I can’t even think about it now without sobbing my heart out.

The aftermath of the fire was raw and painful. I couldn’t even drive past Villagio for many weeks after. It was months before I could look at it without crying. But there was hope. The Weekes were visited by members of the ruling family and were promised care and justice. Civil Defence had a crackdown on mall safety. The Supreme Education Council had a huge crackdown on nursery safety.

The Weekes went back to New Zealand, empty and broken hearted. The other families picked up the pieces of their lives in whatever way they could. I thought about all of them, every single day, and I still do. They are always in my thoughts.

The trouble with Doha is that it’s a very transient community. People come and people go and the population changes all the time. If you go back to Villagio now, it’s as busy as it was before the fire. I feel that the community as a whole has forgotten what happened that day and I have written this post to try and bring back the memories, the pain and the raw emotions that hit this little town on May 28th, 2012.

But please Doha, don’t forget. Don’t forget that you can’t take safety for granted here. Don’t forget that we have never seen the full report into the fire that was supposed to be made public. We still don’t know what the status is of the building materials that were used in Villagio, particularly the paint that is rumoured to be toxic. We still see people smoking inside malls. We still hear fire alarms going off and see nobody moving. We see ambulances and fire engines trying to battle their way through an unyielding traffic jam. We see bits of ceilings fall down from badly built malls.

Yes, lots of things have changed for the better since that awful, awful day. But there is still a long way to go. Please don’t forget.

I’m back!

It’s been a while since I last posted. Since then, I’ve not done much, oh apart from being a little bit busy with carrying, delivering and raising twins. They are now just over 2 years old, and although I barely get a minute to myself, I have a new opportunity to blog since they started a weekly playgroup.

So, watch this space for a regular weekly blog from me.

How many men does it take to get a Nissan Pathfinder out of the mud?

Well, apparently the answer is seven. Call it karma, because I have always found other people getting their cars stuck in the mud highly amusing, but today I found out the hard way what it was like to actually do such a ruddy stupid thing (quite scary actually, if you must know. And humiliating. And bloody funny, with the benefit of hindsight).

I’d gone out to the Simaisma area to take my dog for a walk and to see if we would have any luck finding a German Shepherd dog which has been reported on the Dogs in Doha Facebook page as missing in the area. It’s a nice place to walk and it makes a change from my usual dog-walking haunts around Al Wakra.

I drove up to Al Khor, and then hit the coast and headed south along beach and desert tracks, stopping occasionally to get out and have a good walk around in places which looked like likely hiding spots for a lost dog.

I am a confident driver and I know how to handle a 4WD (supposedly) and I knew the terrain in that area was firm and rocky, rather than soft sand, so there was no need to drop the tyre pressures or load up with shovels and tow ropes….or so I thought.

While the first part of the afternoon had all been over completely unfamiliar terrain, I was actually getting into the bit of the coast which I know quite well when the incident happened.

I was following a track which I know from previous experience to be quite bumpy. Quite often, smoother and leas rutted parallel tracks are forged alongside older tracks, so I dropped down onto lower ground to follow what I thought was one of these newer tracks. Before I knew it, the terrain had become rather sticky and the steering suddenly became pretty useless.

As I attempted to turn towards the track again, in trying to maintain some speed I actually ended up accelerating away from the track and I got the car completely bogged down in some thick mud.

By changing gear ratios and gently rocking between reverse and drive, I managed to get the car moving again, but the thick mud meant that it was only possible to drive it straight ahead, which took me further away from the track. I attempted a left hand turn, but turned too hard and the car bedded in again. This time, no amount of cajoling would shift it.

It was an awful feeling. I had narrowly missed a patch of mud about an hour earlier and had had a little joke with myself about missing tonight’s Arabic class, but now this was real and there was no way the car was moving. I got out and surveyed the situation. I wasn’t too badly bedded in, so using my hands, I scraped away some of the mud which had collected behind the wheels and packed them out with some dried out saltmarsh grasses which I gathered from nearby. This still didn’t give me enough traction and in a fit of panic, knowing that the car was already stuck, I broke all the rules and gave the car some hard revs. As I got out again to survey the damage, I realised that all I had succeeded in doing was bedding the car in deeper and I had no choice now but to seek help.

The mud was almost impossible to walk on, and I was a good 50-100m from the track by this point. Thankfully, nowhere in Qatar is truly quiet and within minutes a Landcruiser passed by along the track.

I tried to wave him down, but as he slowed down for a look, he shook his head and accelerated off up the track! My heart sank and I looked at the dog forlornly. She looked back at me with a look that could only mean, “You idiot”. And you thought only cats were capable of acting like smug bastards?

As the driver went off into the distance, I noticed him slow down and converse with the driver of another Landcruiser, which we shall call Landcruiser Number 2, heading in my direction.

I gave a rather cringe-worthy, half-hearted sort of British wave at the approaching Landcruiser Number 2, not knowing whether his conversation with Landcruiser Number 1 had been about me, and all the while slipping in the mud and trying to hold my skirt down from being blown skywards by the gale-force wind.

As I got closer, the window was wound down and two rather bemused Qatari men looked inquisitively at me from the front seats. Then to my horror, the rear window also dropped and the faces of another four young boys and teenagers appeared, all of them smirking at the spectacle that was a slightly inappropriately-dressed white woman on her own, without a man, in the desert with a car that was clearly stuck in the mud.

A stilted conversation then followed (and yes, I did internally acknowledge the irony that I was going to miss my Arabic class for this), during which the man helpfully pointed out that I was stupid for having driven on the wet mud. We then went through the checklist of things you should really have in your car at all times in Qatar if you are going off-road, and shamefully I had none of them. He then muttered something about tyre covers and drove off.

I was left standing there, wondering if he had a plan and if I would ever see him again. I knew from previous experience with a dead battery that however odd the locals find you and however abrupt they seem, they do tend to come back armed with the appropriate people and tools.

I struggled back to the car and attempted to lift my 15kg of mud-clad feet into the footwell, before giving up and removing my shoes entirely. The dog caught my eye in the rear view mirror. I think she missed her calling in life as a cat, because only cats can give those sorts of looks.

Using Facebook, I looked up the phone number for John, the man who had reported losing the dog. That’s an amazing thing about Qatar; no matter how far off-road you drive, and how deep into the wilderness you go, you will always have a 3G mobile signal.

I sent him an SMS asking if he happened to be in the area and explaining my situation. He called me immediately and said that he had just finished searching the area with his friend and that he could turn the car around and find me within 10 minutes. This was a great relief, as I have always found the local men to be a bit more open and communicative with other men, and if Landcruiser Number 2 came back it would certainly make things easier if I had a male ally, and if he didn’t come back at least I would have a plan B.

As I put the phone down to John, I saw a new Landcruiser, let’s call it Number 3, pull up on the track and signal to me. He was calling me over, so I had to go through the humiliation of getting both of my mud-caked shoes back on (each of which weighed at least 5kg because of the mud), and subject the poor guy to a flash of my underwear with every frequent gust of wind, for the direction of the car meant that I was subjected to a full assault from the gale-force wind every time I opened the car door, and it was impossible to force the car-door open against the wind and successfully keep my skirt in check at the same time. With the added complication of me having to put my shoes on as well, I am sure the poor guy is going to have to stay in the mosque until the next sunrise to make up for what he witnessed in those few minutes.

As I approached him, dragging my 5kg clod-hoppers through the thick mud, every so often skidding and almost falling over whilst completely losing control of my skirt, the look on his face became increasingly clear. He wasn’t amused. In another stilted conversation, he asked me if my car had 4WD. Yes it does, thanks for asking, and yes, strangely enough, I had already thought of engaging 4WD mode.

Thankfully, my Landcruiser-Number-2-driving-hero appeared at that moment, and after a great deal of Arabic gesturing between them and much obvious hilarity at my expense, the useless knight-in-shining-Landcruiser-Number-3 departed the scene. As I walked towards Landcruiser Number 2, I fell flat on my face in the mud.

To my joy and delight, Landcruiser Number 2 was still fully laden with pretty much all of the male members of his family. At first the atmosphere was slightly tense, but then there was much hilarity as one-by-one, all of the kids slipped and fell in the mud, all of them lost their shoes and their previously white thobes took on an interesting shade of ‘desert mud’.

He had also brought his house-boy out with him, who was tasked with most of the hard work of rolling out the ropes and attaching them to my car. This should have been a 5-minute job, but the comedy mud factor meant that it was more like a scene from It’s A Knockout crossed with the Krypton Factor (and that stupid bouncy balls programme which Richard Hammond presents on Saturday nights).

To add to the surrealism of the whole scene, the entire family’s thobes were also heavily blood-stained. Thankfully, being completely unobservant, I didn’t notice this until much later on, by which time I was already aware that they had been out hunting with their falcons. Otherwise I think I would have taken the dog and made a run for it across the desert at this point.

John turned up within a couple of minutes, and by sheer coincidence, it turned out that he knew Lancruiser Number 2’s driver, who was apparently called Ali. John was obviously a hardened outdoor type and he was well kitted out, both in terms of clothing and equipment in his car. John and Ali together hatched out a plan to drag my car out backwards. It would mean dragging the car through an awkward angle, but they seemed confident they could do it, and to be honest, it was the only option. I was lucky to have them both there, because it took both of their sets of ropes to make a rope long enough to pull my car free.

For most of the next hour, I had to sit in the car as if it was the naughty step, while the men and boys all worked hard around me, caking themselves in mud, losing their shoes and having a great deal of difficulty in finding a suitable way of attaching the ropes to my awkwardly-angled car.

To make matters worse, I had only had the UV window tints applied to my car the day before, so I was under strict instructions not to open any of the car windows for another 24 hours while the film dried out. As a result, every time one of them needed to speak to me or address me, I had to open the car door against the gale force winds and subject myself to the now ritual humiliation of trying to hold my skirt down to protect my modesty. This did not always work, much to Ali’s disgust, his house-boy’s delight and his children’s amusement.

The first two attempts to pull me out failed, and John began the perilous journey back to his car to get some kind of gripping mat for the tyres. As I fiddled with something on my dash, I caught a glimpse in my nearside mirror of the tow-rope running hurriedly away from the rear of the car and realised that without warning, attempt number three was already underway. I looked up to see the house-boy gesturing wildly at me from across my bonnet, and I’d barely had time to engage the car in reverse before the rope tensed up and with little warning, the tyres suddenly found some grip and I went shooting backwards towards Ali’s car. High speed off-road reversing is not exactly my forte, especially when it happens without warning, and I steered frantically as I saw a massive rock heading towards my car in the rear view mirror, and then in the offside mirror and then the nearside mirror. And then, as quickly as it had all started, suddenly I was on dry, firm ground again and the rock was the other side of my car, and we were all completely unscathed.

I said the word shukran profusely at everyone in sight, and made up some kind of international gesture of eternal gratitude. I wish I had more Arabic skills to convey just how much I appreciated Ali and his family coming out to help me, but I didn’t have the words or gestures to say it. He pointed to his broken and ruined shoes and shouted “Money” at me, to which I replied with a hearty British chuckle, but I am not entirely convinced that he wasn’t being serious.

Thankfully, his boys seemed to be happy with me letting the dog out for a play as their reward, although unfortunately she seems to have an innate fear of thobe-clad boys and men (especially blood-stained thobes apparently) and she wasn’t having any of it.

As Ali departed in a cloud of dust, I cleared up his broken rope and ruined shoes and watched as the sun dipped below the horizon. It had been a close call and I will make sure my car is better equipped in future, and pay a bit more attention to where I’m pointing my wheels.

As you may have gathered, I’d also very slightly pushed the envelope of decency in terms of my clothing and I think from now on, it would be a good idea to keep something a little more modest in the car to throw on in such situations, such as an abaya or long skirt. The skirt I was wearing was an incredibly practical knee-length North Face hiking skirt, and it was built for comfort rather than sex appeal. In normal dog-walking situations it is absolutely fine, in terms of modesty, but sometimes it helps to have the option of covering up just a little bit more if you need to interact more directly with local people and I should really try and remember that interactions could happen anywhere at any time. I could sense the boys’ and Ali’s discomfort with the amount of leg-flesh I had on display throughout the ordeal and it didn’t help the ‘stupid, white Westerner’ impression that they clearly had of me.

Anyway, after all this, the bad news is that this poor dog is still out there somewhere. I am sure he will be finding plenty of food and water to survive on, as there are plenty of winter camps in the area, but it’s quite possible that he was picked up by a weekend camper and taken back to the city, so please keep an eye out for him if you are in Doha, Simaisma or Al Khor. His name is Gonzo.

Stand Up Comedy Qatar (SUCQ)

On Monday night, we went to our second Stand Up Comedy Qatar event. Home-grown comedy in Qatar is just a seedling at the moment, but SUCQ is nurturing and promoting new talent, through a series of workshops, open-mic events and full-scale comedy shows, such as the one which took place at Bistro 61 in West Bay on Monday evening.

I am a big fan of stand-up comedy. Good comedy can raise awareness of important social and political issues, and break down barriers between different sections of society and cultures. There was a (lengthy period of) time when my limited knowledge of current affairs was gained entirely through the BBC’s Have I Got News For You! And my hazy recollection of political issues during my 1980s childhood is heavily influenced by what I saw on Spitting Image…..

I’ve been keen to support SUCQ since I first heard about it. Qatar is at a crossroads right now, and the next generation will have to decide how the country moves forward from this point onwards. Comedy is a great tool for airing issues and opening up the debate.

As an expat, I was also interested in seeing local comedy because of the opportunity it offers to gain some rare insight into Qatari society and how local issues are perceived by other cultures in the great melting pot of Doha.

The affable compere, Halal Bilal (follow him on Twitter and Facebook), was on good form on Monday night, and seemed much more confident than he had been during a slightly nervous performance at the Sheraton in November.

The SUCQ support acts were all local residents and included Pakistani Saad Khan, Qatari Abdallah Al-Ghanim and Palestinian Issa el-Fahoum.

Issa’s confidence and stage presence is especially notable, considering that he is only fifteen years old! Much of his act reflects on his experiences as an Arab attending an Indian school here in Doha, a rich source of material, but it was a shame to see his act revert half-way through to some old material that we had heard at the last SUCQ event in November. During the first half of his act, I was seriously impressed that he had come up with some new material, as many Western comedians get months, or even a year or two, out of their acts before disappearing underground for a while to come up with new routines. Just as I was pondering this in amazement, he suddenly lost his way a little with his routine, and I don’t know if the reversion to old jokes was deliberate, or out of desperation at forgetting his new routine. Still, you have to hand it to him. At just 15 years old, he’s got many more years to polish up his already promising act. If he was to draw on his Palestinian roots a little more, I am sure that if he wanted to, he could develop into a world-class comedian who could use his skills to raise awareness about Palestinian issues on the international stage.

I was especially looking forward to hearing from another Qatari comedian. At the previous November SUCQ show, Qatari comedian Mohammad Fahal Kamal had been a real highlight for me, with his hilarious insight into Qatari girls and consideration of the disaster that would be a Qatari air hostess. He dared to walk a slightly wobbly line and sometimes crossed it and we loved him for it!

Monday night’s Qatari performer, Abdallah Al Ghanim was a smiley, happy chap, in head-to-toe national dress, and I immediately warmed to him. His slot was short and funny, but didn’t offer a great deal of insight into local culture unfortunately; it was fairly generic men vs. women stuff, but amusing all the same.

I am very naive about Qatari culture, having had little interaction with the locals since I’ve been here. I have blogged before about the false impressions about local society that can be gleaned by casual observers, so for me, the opportunity to hear a Qatari stand up is absolutely priceless, whatever their material.

Overall impressions of the SUCQ comedians.

I am a little wary of criticising the local comedians. Who am I to say what is and isn’t funny? Comedy is such a culture-dependent thing and this is a real challenge for SUCQ, which attracts very diverse audiences. There isn’t much comedy which translates from my native Britain across the Atlantic, and certainly not through Europe or beyond. And would I ever have the balls to stand up in front of a room full of people and crack jokes? Of course not!

Us Brits have a unique sense of humour which many other cultures find offensive and baffling. Our dry wit leans heavily on sarcasm and we are so emotionally retarded that for many of us, the only way we have of expressing affection for someone is to take the p*ss out of them!

We have a history, going back centuries, of comedy being used to keep politicians in check (for example, the Punch cartoons) and it has been used as a driving force for change, influencing and shaping public opinion in a way that probably doesn’t happen elsewhere in the world. Our self-deprecation extends to tearing down ‘the establishment’ at every opportunity.

This is important in a democratic society. If you choose and elect your own leaders, you have to keep them in check and make sure that they are delivering on promises.

It doesn’t work in a society like Qatar’s. The attitude to leadership is completely different. The Emir is doing a fantastic job of managing his country’s internal and external affairs, and there is no reason for this to be questioned. Society sticks together; something that is hard to grasp for someone from ‘Broken Britain’. Taking the p*ss out of your peers, or questioning the establishment, is just not the done thing here, not because people are scared to, but because they don’t really have the need or desire to.

I know from a personal exchange with Halal Bilal on Twitter that he was offended and hurt by this BBC article, which didn’t take too kindly to the SUCQ approach. The article had an air of arrogance which implied that SUCQ is backward and unfunny and the message that local comedians should take advice “from the white man” did not go down well.

I can sense that you know there is a ‘but’ coming….

BUT. The only problem I have with the SUCQ comedians is that Qatar provides so much in the way of rich material and they don’t seem to make much use of it. Most of the acts centre heavily around racial issues, taking the p*ss out of accents and mannerisms. To a Brit, this can be a little grating to watch, as it harks back to the bad old days of British comedy, in the 1970s, when racism was rife and little progress had been made to integrate immigrant cultures into British life. (Of course, there are Brits now who feel that British society has now gone too far in its multi-culturalism and too politially correct in its comedy, but that’s a whole other debate).

I think that’s where the author of the BBC article was coming from. For us Brits, it’s actually quite uncomfortable to sit through comedians taking the mick out of different races. And although the BBC article is clumsy and very insensitive to local culture, I personally think that SUCQ can learn from it, as long as they can get past the hurtful tone and try not to take it personally.

Qatar has a deeply racially divided society and you know your place in it based primarily on the colour of your skin and your passport. Halal Bilal cleverly drew attention to this with an amusing anecdote about entering Qatar as an Asian man with a South African passport. However, the other comedians’ occasional mocking of other cultures’ mannerisms and accents isn’t really doing anything constructive to try and tackle the issue and it’s only helping to reinforce cultural barriers, not break them down.

Qatar is riddled with comedy-rich material at every corner. From entire supermarket aisles devoted to tissues (why?!) to crumbling balconies on brand new villas, through to the driving (oh, the driving!), there’s a lot for a comedian to get his teeth into without causing offence or insulting the country’s political leadership.

That said, SUCQ has my absolute support and I urge everyone to try and attend at least one event. My husband was quite reluctant to come with me on Monday night, but despite my criticisms outlined above, we did have a really good laugh and he was glad he came.

And despite my concerns about racism, I must admit that the constant ribbing of the groups of Qatari ladies and men who occupy the VIP seats at SUCQ events is absolutely hilarious, and it’s good to see it taken in good humour! The Qatari audience can give as good as they get and you will see some excellent heckling. The presence of a 13 year-old Al Thani at the November event put all of the comedians on the spot and they all had to think on their feet, proving that they can hold themselves in the most challenging of conditions……