Sunday, February 24, 2008


Recently the New York Times ran two articles on American schools setting up campuses in the Middle East. Below are links to the two articles. In the first one, a large picture comes up of two Qataris standing next to a staircase in the LAS building where I work. My office and labs are about twenty feet to the left of this picture...


Saturday, February 23, 2008

hot dogs & beer...

Someone jokingly mentioned that I was about to hit the two-month mark living in Doha... and that everything will get worse from here on out. He was referring to the fact that ex-pats have the hardest time adjusting to living overseas during months three thru nine. The first two months are the honeymoon... everything is new, people are helping you out a lot, and you are constantly exploring your new home. But after two months, you start noticing the faults... people aren't that nice, you can't buy the deordorant you like, someone keeps leaving the toothpaste cap off the tube, etc. The little things start to bother you as you settle into your routine. There are things like that happening to me, but so far they are far less worse than when I was in Houston. Traffic is bad, but the city is so small so who cares? The bureacracy is maddening, but show me one that isn't? All in all, I'm really liking it here. But there are things that are making me a little homesick... I'm missing my Baby...

I do wish I could do something to make my home more... homey. I can't paint the walls (cannot find paint), and I can't stand all the white and brown. All - take a look at the pictures of my place online, and give me some suggestions!

I have found myself longing for a few things that you just cannot get here. Mainly, pork. Everyone, go to your fridges and eat some pork for me... because you don't know what life is like without it. I have great respect to the religion and cultures of the region... but no pig?? The food here is great, but always a little dry, and nothing comes with a sauce of any kind. Why?... no pig fat to cook in. BBQ here just means cooked over a grill with some seasoning. It's hard to find a true BBQ sauce, and when you do, it's ungodly expensive. Most meats are eaten in shwarma or minced (not ground, minced into a fine meaty powder) so ribs or pulled beef is out of the question. I ate chicken hot dogs last week. And I don't care what they say... beef bacon is not bacon... ever.

A big question I had before I came here was "what is the food like?" I was trying to find out what was the cuisine of the middle east, since you rarely see middle-eastern restaurants or dishes in the west. Well, I finally have my answer... there is no middle-eastern cuisine. None. Sure, they eat dates and palm, love their citrus, and have a healthy appetite for camel, but nothing stands out. I asked some of my students what would be Qatar's signature dish... and no one could come up with anything. The food here is an amalgam of other cultures... particularly Turkish, Indian, and Lebanese.

Turkish and Lebanese are very similar, and probably comprise more than half of the restaurants in Doha. Lots of rice, hummus, fresh unleavened breads, pickled vegetables, kebabs, mixed nuts, roast chicken, and minced lamb or beef with eastern spices. My favorite place, so far, is a Turkish restaurant nearby that sells meat, veg, and egg pies shapes like boomerangs... sooo good for about a buck each.

Indian food is another large subgroup. Not that many Indian restaurants (although they are all fantastic) but their influence with spices and tajines (cooking in earthenware dishes... think crockpot) is everywhere. Honestly, I always liked Indian food, but was never a huge fan... I always ended up eating a dandelion pod or some unknown clove that ruined it for me. Turns out I was eating crap... 'cause the Indian food here is nothing like you've ever had before! The bread alone would be worth the price of a plane ticket. Most of the Indian food in northern style... more refined and crafted. Some places do serve the southern style of mixed curries and burn-a-hole-in-your-soul spices. Me... I like them all.

I need to clarify when I talk about Indians... I'm talking about the sub-continental Indians... from India. If you say Indians here, there can sometimes be a communication gap... just like in the states. Lots of people here call all east-asians, from the Indes, "indians." So Phillipinos or Pinay are also called "indians." Just making sure we're all on the same page.

I still don't have my car... little snafus with the paperwork and timing. I should get it tomorrow... cross your fingers. I ended up buying a Nissan XTerra. Always like the styling, and surprisingly affordable when your company gives you a car stipend every month. I probably won't be able to bring it to the states when I leave due to manufacturing codes. The standards for safety are not as stringent here as they are in the states... even though my car was made in Mississippi. The XTerra is safe, four-wheel-drive, offroad capabilities, plenty of room for me, and comfortable. There's only two things I don't like about the car... the gas mileage and the color. It's gas mileage sucks... but when you're paying about 70 cents per gallon... who cares? As for the color, I wanted either black, blue, maroon, or red. Turns out you don't want to own a black car in the desert... as the dashboards tend to pop out of their supports with the heat, and the dust and sand causes scratches and turns the black paint gray. And the blue and maroon were only for the top-of-the-line models with sat-nav and custom leather interior. Why anyone wants sat-nav in a country that you can drive all the way across in half-an-hour is beyond me. As for the red, they purposely don't import that color to Qatar. Red SUVs are reserved for the ruling family's (al-Thanis) private security force... the CID. That leaves the standard choices of all automobiles in Doha... white or silver. In fact, about 95% of the cars here are white or silver... and at least half of those are Toyota Landcruisers (the choice of all Qataris). Problem is, I can't stand white or silver cars... never could. They're just boring and plain and ugly... especially here since that is all anyone owns!! So, I took it a step further than normal... I got the yellow one. Turns out, the XTerra, a staple in the US, just arrived in Qatar this month. And I bought one of two in the entire country. Can't wait..

The bowling league is supposed to start play this week... but the guy in charge is out of town, so there might be a delay. But that didn't stop me from preparing, oh no... I bought a bowling ball... and it glows in the dark!! I got the finger holes drilled today and played a quick game... 121. Not the best, but still OK.

Speaking of sports, this was an all-sports, all the time, weekend. Went to the TAMUQ basketball game on Thursday night versus Weill Cornell Medical College. Blowout, TAMUQ win. Bad news though, one of our bench players went down with a blown knee with only a minute left in the game. Hope he's well.

This past week I was joking with my students about how much I hate soccer, "football, Mr. Ben... it is called football". Of course here, soccer is the national sport and everyone plays it. So I promised some of my students that I would go watch the football match on Friday. I went out Friday afternoon (remember, my weekends are Fri and Sat) and watched the game. How excruciatingly boring!! I just don't get the excitement of it... the constant falling down and feigning of injury. And they do it so poorly!! The best part of the game was when a player (not ours) was yellow carded for a penalty. He then started to argue with the ref, and was given a red card... meaning he was thrown out of the game. Well, this little firecracker was having none of that!! Instead, he sat in the middle of the field screaming that he had done nothing wrong, and was not going to leave the pitch. That's right, he was throwing a temper tantrum. And everyone seemed OK with it... and he sat there for twenty minutes while everyone argued. No wonder I would rather eat a soccer ball than watch it.

On the other spectrum of sportsmanship, I was invited to watch the league cricket championship on Saturday from some of my sub-continental Indian students. Sure, I said, it'll be interesting... but I brought a book, just in case. This afternoon (beautiful day) I took a chair out to a large parking lot in Education city and watched my first cricket match. I loved it!! No, I don't understand all the rules, and no, I couldn't keep track of the score... but it was so much fun! The students were explaining the game to me, there was actual excitement both on the field and with the players on the bench, and they were gracious sports when they lost the championship to the med school. 134-133 with six bowlers remaining... tough break. The students were very curteous in explaining everything going on... I think it was because I was the only spectator!That's right... championship game... and I, someone who knows absolutely nothing about cricket, was the only person rooting for my team. Gig em, Ags!

We're not done with sports just yet. After the game, I went to the bowling alley downtown to get my ball drilled and to bowl a game. All good fun. On the way home, I saw that there were a ton of cars lined up and down one of the major streets that I live off of. Then it hit me, the ladies tennis tournament, the Qatar Open, was going on. We have two huge tennis centers in Doha, and everyone was parked to see the semi-finals... or they wanted to see Maria Sharapova. But who doesn't want to see Maria Sharapova? So, I pulled over and went to take a look. Most sporting events here are completely free to go watch, and this was no different, but you did need a ticket to get in the gates for the reserved seating. But it turns out that if you walk quick and act like you belong inside, the ticket officials won't stop you. And there I found myself... standing in the tunnel of the stadium, watching Sharapova beat Radwanska in two sets. I didn't stay for long, as security was wondering why I wasn't going to my seat. But it was a cool experience, anyway.

In one weekend I went to a basketball game, a soccer pitch, a cricket ground, bowled ten frames, and watched a tennis match...

And I barely broke a sweat...


Friday, February 15, 2008

and not a drop to drink...

Finally got out of the city today. One of the professors at TAMUQ is an expert in archeochemistry... the chemistry of archeological artifacts. Turns out there is a large formation of rocks on the northern gulf that have carvings made by... well, god knows who. No one knows who made them or what they are... paired series of holes, boats with oars coming out of them, large sisterns to catch water, maybe. The carvings (rock art... actual name) are in a protected area right off the beach on the northern most tip of Qatar. I say protected... but not really. We cannot take any samples, and you're not allowed to remove anything. But anyone can just go and check it out. In fact, as we were pulling up to the site, the Qatar motorcyle club pulled in along side of us and had a photoshot on the rocks... good science.

Anyway, I went up with the prof to get some pics and use a GPS to mark the location of carvings. Later, we went to another site and hiked around, looking for signs of rock art. It was a beautiful day, a little windy, but it was amazing to find yourself in the middle of a desert. I put a ton of pics up on the photo site...

Afterwards, we stopped in the town of Al Kohr and had lunch. Al Kohr is an old fort town that is home to mainly immigrant mainland Indians. It has a corniche (waterfront) just like Doha, but much smaller. When I got home I realized that in just a few hours I had gotten sunburned and a little dehydrated. You just can't underestimate the heat and wind here... and it's still only February. When I got home I changed clothes to take a shower. There was a thick film of yellow dust layering the bottom of my shower. That's just how it is here... everything gets covered in dust.

With any luck, I'll have a new car next week. A nice four wheel drive machine that will allow me to head out in the desert myself, and hopefully head south to the dunes in a few weeks.

My bowling league starts up in two weeks. To celebrate, I decided to buy myself a ball... always wanted my own. Pretty much had to get one since none of the balls at the alley would fit my. Ended up buying the cheapest ball I could find online... and... it glows in the dark!! I'm going to get the fingers drilled tomorrow... and then the bowling starts.

Teaching the labs is going really well. I always have to perform the labs myself to better understand what the student's have to do, and to remember all the concepts. The labs are actually a lot of fun... I'm remembering what I used to love about chemistry. The students, like all students, are a mixed bag. They are all really sharp kids... they have to be to get into the school. But the maturity level here is less than what I remember when I was in school, and I've heard the same from more experienced teachers. For many of the students, this is their first time taking classes with people from different countries and different sexes. A lot of them grew up in a priviledged society. Many show up being driven to school by their maids or servants. TAMUQ actually has a policy of not allowing maids to carry books for the students... hah. When I try to explain to them why it is important to learn the hands on procedures, I always get odd looks from the Qatari students. Turns out, none of them will ever be practicing engineers... they will all go directly into upper management. Nice to start out on top...

Thanks for all the emails and correspondance, everyone. Dad and Kim have been video calling me using windows instant messenger... if you'd like to, send me an email and I'll give you my info. Although I'm a little upset with the lack of care packages. Just a reminder, I'm allowed to get up to four packages a month... just letting you know. And I could really use a Swiffer and some pads... it gets really dusty here.



Friday, February 1, 2008

that's entertainment...

First things first... Happy Birthday Mom!!

Being in a new city and country affords me the opportunity to explore the different cultures, foods, and places that surround me. But sometimes... you just want to stay home. Like today... a sandstorm blew in overnight and almost no one is on the roads. Why?? Because you can't see farther than fifty feet in front of your car with a wind blowing so hard it coats the windows with dust and sand every two minutes. Windshield wipers don't work so well when you're squeegee-ing off dust... and never use your wiper fluid... big mistake.

Normally when I get bored, I try to start some projects... building a deck, painting a room, etc. I like keeping my hands busy. But my options are a little stunted here. First off, there's no Home Depot within four thousand miles. Tools are a hot commodity... and so is paint... and wood. My flat is very nice, but its hard to hang a picture (if you can find one) when the walls are 12-inch thick concrete. Painting would be nice, if you can find the paint.

The local Qataris like to lounge in tents with the walls and furniture covered in the same Arabic fabric. If I can find the right stuff for cheap, I think I'm going to do that to my living room. Think harem... without the naked women and drugs... (dammit).

Also, almost all businesses have either pictures or woven rugs with the sheik and the crown-prince on them. Gotta get me some of those!!

I haven't shelled out for satellite TV yet. I have about fifty channels, all but six are in arabic. The lineup breaks down like this: 50% - some arabic man talking into a microphone (at least twenty channels at any given time), 20% - calming local music with nature scenes while text of the Koran is highlighted across the screen, 10% - bad 80's american movies with steven seagal or bruce willis (really), 10% - cooking shows on the fatafeat network (I move across the globe and still can't get away from Rachael Ray), 5% - news on bbc and al-jazeera, and the final 5% is arabic-dubbed King of Queens. I never liked that damn show.

Speaking of al-jazeera, for those of you that don't know, it is the network that always delivers the terrorist's tapes to the west, and it is located here in Doha. Let me set the record straight... al-jazeera is no different than CNN. In fact, it IS the CNN over here. It is a widely respected organization and is the leading source of un-biased news around here. It makes me laugh that a few years ago, our president talked openly about bombing al-jazeera so they wouldn't be able to receive terrorist's tapes. That's like killing the waiter from bringing you bad food. And I'm not just saying this because I live RIGHT BY THEIR HEADQUARTERS!! So please... in the upcoming elections... vote for the guy who won't bomb al-jazeera... thank you.

I went to TAMUQ's basketball game last night. We played a solid defensive game against Qatar Academy, and came out with a strong win. Now, considering the Qatar Academy Falcons are equivalent to an american high school, you may not see the highlights on ESPN. Even so, it was a solid whoopin...

A few of us are going to try and watch the Superbowl here. Someone has a hookup to a stateside cable box that he can watch on his computer. We're trying to get premission to hook it up in the large stadium classroom so we can view it on the high-def movie screen... keep your fingers crossed.

I went out to the Doha Masters golf tournament last weekend. Walked the course (very nice) in the north end of Doha. If you look on google earth, it's pretty easy to find. Just look for the only large patch of green in the entire country. Saw sergio, adam scott, ian poulter, and colin montgomerie, who, incidentially, has lost a lot of weight. If you've ever played golf in arizona, the course looks much the same... one difference... you can see the ocean from the tee boxes.

In the next few weeks, I should have my own car. Currently I'm driving a rented Chevy Optra that is about three sizes too small for me. I think I would be better off with my old Yugo (miss that car). I'm probably gonna buy a new 4x4 SUV so I can get out of the city a little better and go explore. I was told to make sure I don't buy a Shayynatt... an Indian car they sell a lot of here. Turns out their engine hoses like to melt in the summer sun. Oops.

One last thing... and this one's for my dad. Years ago, dad gave me some sound advice. He said, "If you want to meet some people and have fun... join a bowling league." At the time, I laughed and thought that dad was starting to go senile. Well dad... once again, you've proven yourself right. I joined the Education City bowling league. Its a faculty only league, and it seems to be pretty cutthroat. I'm going bowling tomorrow with some coworkers... for "fun" they say. I think they're just sizing me up to see if I'm worthy of playing on their team, or to send me down to the scrub team (math department).

It's a odd day when you realize the most exciting part of your weekend will be bowling tryouts.