Drinking Beers in Qatar | The New Yorker

Drinking Beers in Qatar | The New Yorker

I drank a lot when I lived in Qatar.

I drank with Americans, Arabs, Aussies, and Indians, Irish and French people, British bros and British toffs. With marines, Al Jazeera journalists, professors, gas-extraction engineers, State Department stiffs, and the rare female friends, whom I cherished, in a country filled with way too many men. We drank at house parties, on dhows far from shore, in the middle of the desert, in swanky hotel bars, at the golf club, and on little porches overlooking a city still being built. I sat paralyzed in more than a couple of passenger-side seats, worried my driver would be Breathalyzed and deported (a zero-tolerance policy reigned supreme), and spent many weekend afternoons browsing the liquor store out on the edge of town, not too far from Our Lady of the Rosary, the Catholic church that had gone up in 2008. The rumor was that the church and the liquor store were on their own entirely separate electrical grid to satisfy the conservative Qataris, who disapproved of the existence of both.

The church, the liquor store, and the drinking were the provenance of expats, and there were a lot of us—a couple million, compared with only a couple hundred thousand Qatari nationals. The population imbalance was tipped by the discovery, in 1971, of massive reserves of natural gas in the waters separating Qatar from Iran. Before then, Qatar had been a British protectorate mostly known for pearl diving, fishing, and a Bedouin way of life. But, after the gas discovery, change came quickly; in order to extract its wealth from the earth, Qatar needed to bring in people who had the know-how to build enormous plants, and the laborers—preferably as cheap as possible—to do the grunt work.

I came to Qatar to work at Georgetown University’s campus in Doha, the capital city, in 2009, which was twelve years after the country’s first liquefied-natural-gas plant came online, in 1997. I was there the day the news was announced that Qatar had won its World Cup bid. Caught up in the excitement, I drove down to the corniche, the curving road that runs along Doha Bay, and watched as thousands—including many Indians, Pakistanis, Palestinians, and Egyptians, whose families have lived in Qatar for decades—honked their horns and waved the maroon-and-white Qatari standard. The joy seemed in large part due to the recognition that the World Cup bestowed on a country not many people had heard of. (The U.S. Justice Department has presented evidence suggesting that bribery was what helped bring the cup to Qatar, but there have been no convictions. Qatari officials have denied the allegations, and an earlier inquiry by FIFA’s ethics committee found no evidence of bribery.)

But there were always questions about what the World Cup would actually look like in Qatar. The place is tiny and hot, for one thing (not a dry heat, either, contrary to popular belief)—a little thumb jutting off the Arabian Peninsula. And, like its neighbor Saudi Arabia, Qatar adheres to the conservative Wahhabi branch of Islam; drunken fans aren’t common at the country’s sporting events. When I saw the news that, at the last minute, authorities had banned beer at stadiums, I wasn’t all that surprised. It was the kind of sharp assertion of Qatari identity that tracks with the country’s tortured relationship with the outside forces that have helped mold it into a money-soaked modern emirate.

Once the gas was discovered, change accelerated under the reign of the relatively liberal Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, who had overthrown his father in a bloodless coup, in 1995. Qatari grandparents who had tended herds in the desert found themselves living out their dotage in the hyper-air-conditioned marble palaces of their children and grandchildren. When the Doha Sheraton, a beige, “Star Wars”-looking triangle of a building, opened in 1982, it was pretty much the only tall structure in the country. Now Doha’s skyline is packed with gleaming towers—glass-and-metal icicles in the desert.

As Western expats funnelled in—to help run the gas plants, design the new buildings, teach in the universities, and build out the medical system—they brought along certain demands. Their lives in this barren desert country were to be made comfortable. The primarily South Asian and Filipino migrants who work construction in brutal heat, and who staff homes and offices—living under kafala, a “sponsorship” system that grew out of British labor practices in the region and which involves the confiscation of a worker’s passport—couldn’t assert the same demands. The white-collar Arab and South Asian expats who had lived in Qatar long before the influx of Westerners seemed less inclined to agitate. And, yes, the social structure was and is all redolent of colonialism, except the Qataris are ultimately in charge. For Westerners, the pay was high if you were willing to take the leap. Can’t make it in London? Try Qatar! The houses were gated, with pools, and live-in help was cheap (see: kafala), but the boredom quotient was off the charts.

Drinking became a fixation for many—because it was fun and social, sure, but there was also a nose-thumbing aspect to it. You lived your whole workweek wearing conservative clothes in a-hundred-and-twenty-plus-degree heat, going to censored movies at the theatre, and growing tired of the endless mall walks. A Hendrick’s and cucumber was a taste of home and a private statement of defiance; drinking in Doha must be done in sanctioned hotels and clubs, or at your residence, after you’ve obtained a liquor license through your employer, stating that you are not a Muslim.

Source link

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *