December 18th here in Qatar is National Day and boy, do they go all out! People have their cars wrapped in pictures of the Emir and his son (the Heir Apparent) and the flag. Weeks in advance, flags start popping up all over the place. Huge flags draping over buildings, lining streets, sprouting out the top of homes and businesses, signaling the coming celebrations. Palm tree-lined streets light up like Christmas and the whole country is infected with excitement.
On the actual day there’s a very military-heavy parade, which takes place on the corniche (the road running along the sea). As you’re watching the parade in front of you, all of a sudden behind you (in the sea) are huge, fast boats displaying military prowess as well. And if that wasn’t enough to awe everyone, people start jumping from airplanes above, a helicopter lifts 3 men out of the water who are all carrying a piece of a huge flag which emerges from the sea like a majestic rising phoenix. It’s quite the display.
In the evening there are fireworks along the corniche that are 15 minutes of, what are pretty much, the grand finale of any other fireworks I’ve ever seen. It’s madness. It took almost two hours to get home from the fireworks (usually about a 10 minute drive). I didn’t resent the traffic though because the exuberant Qataris kept us amused, and intermittently alarmed. They honked their horns and sang songs and stood poking out of the sunroofs of their SUV’s waving flags and cheering…for hours.
Before our school let out for the winter break the students enjoyed a day devoted to National Day. Preparations went on for weeks in advance. The children dressed up in traditional Qatari clothing, painted their faces, had their hair specially done and of course many had their arms and hands decked out in elabourate henna designs. The parents came, the bouncy castles went up, the food was prepared and each class presented a song, a folk tale or traditional game in an assembly.
“Please leave your swords at the Principal’s office for the day!” This kind of announcement jerks me into my present reality when I’m slipping into the same-old-same-old school-is-school-wherever-you-are mode. I regret not getting a picture of the stack of swords outside her door before they were all collected again for the assembly.
The teachers also got in on the action. Some of the male teachers wore traditional thobes and some of the women gave the abaya a test drive. Here’s a nice looking Qatari couple. Modern, yet traditional.
I forced Honour to school with us that day. It was the first day of her holidays and you can imagine the excitement she displayed at my “request” that she come and have a cultural experience with us. “Yes honey, your alarm will need to be set at 5:00 a.m.” I was persona nongrata but she’s my third teenager so I’ve weathered that storm a few times before. Ho hum. Then I secured an abaya for her to wear for the day. That was met by a little groan but really not much push-back. The interchange (in my mind) was pretty reflective of the culture. I wouldn’t have made her wear one, but I strongly suggested she do so and I provided her with a lovely abaya and many reasons why this would be a good exercise. Also, most of our friends were participating. The women here are not forced to cover but encouraged to, their families do and their friends do. You’d have to have some pretty strong feelings about it to swim against that current.
Another reason why Honour didn’t fight about this one, and why I suspect most girls don’t, is that she has seen the value of wearing an abaya and has mentioned a few times that she’d like to get one to wear to the mall. This desire is sparked by a couple of things. One is, she’s a head turner. Her long blonde hair and blue eyes are like a magnet. She gets followed and stared at, one person taps another and they watch her pass, older ladies *tch their tongues at her no matter how conservatively she’s dressed, and other such unwelcomed attention. She has developed the skill of ignoring this (mostly) but when I’m with her I’m not as good at it. I tend to give young men a long, fierce, what-do-you-think-you’re-looking-at? Mama bear stare. Dave and I would be thrilled with the idea of her being completely covered when out in public, but we’ll likely continue to do what this Canadian family does, cloak ourselves in willful oblivion and modest clothing.
But for one day we ‘tried it on’. We got the feeling of having our clothes and our hair covered up. All and all, I didn’t like it much. I thought I might actually. I’m often envious of the female teachers who don’t have to worry about their hair and who, I KNOW, have blue jeans on underneath their elegant, flowing gown. But the reality is, it’s quite cumbersome. The sleeves were constantly getting in the way, I tripped a couple of times, I felt the headscarf was choking me and I did NOT like the way it made me look. I resolved to keep the whole thing on for a certain amount of time (the morning, including the assembly after which I loosened the headscarf but the abaya stayed on for two days) and I gave myself that time to consider what it would be like to feel the need to wear this if it was part of my culture, or worse, my religion. I say ‘worse’ because bucking the culture is what we do, especially during our teen years, but if I had an actual religious conviction that compelled me to do it, that’s harder to get out of. Not acting on a religious conviction but bending to your ego (which is what it would be for me) is really the ultimate in shallowness and vanity isn’t it? I have increased respect for them. I don’t think anyone looks better without hair…women that is. Men are a WHOLE other story.
Here are some pictures from our experience of Qatari pride on National Day and our attempt to participate.
National Day Celebrated at the school. Unfortunately I’m not allowed to show any children, so all photos are careful to have back views or blurry faces. It’s too bad…they have such sweet faces and my pictures are lovely.