By Ng Wan Ting
Doha North Sewage Treatment Works
PARCHED. Sandy. Empty. Yet sometimes the most barren of lands can impart life's richest lessons.
I knew that living in Qatar was going to be an extraordinary experience even before I stepped off the plane. From the air, all that I could see was an expanse of golden land which stretched endlessly into the horizon. The sheer vastness was awe-inspiring.
My first ground encounter in Doha was also unforgettable. As we got out of the airport, our driver negotiated the congested streets expertly at top speed while averting close slams into Herculean land cruisers and bolting sports cars.
Initially, put off by the thought of driving on Doha's streets - famous for having one of the highest road accident rates in the world - we nestled in the comfort of our villas. But as typical Singaporeans, it was not long before we started to hanker for Asian food. We finally took to the roads and drove to a Malaysian restaurant in Souq Al Waqif.
Getting myself acquainted with the city was fortunately less hair-raising, although it was nothing like love at first sight. Like a special local dish, one could say that Doha is an acquired taste. With its towering buildings, the city appears to rise from a sea of sand. Juxtapose that with the busy, haggling markets, and Doha becomes a city of contrasts, where the remnants of an ancient past co-exist with its modern architectural trophies.
Similar to the experience in Singapore, the Qatari authorities have made efforts to preserve its heritage through urban planning. While the city is swiftly growing into a huge cosmopolitan hub, sights and sounds reminiscent of the past can be still be found.
A wonderful product of such efforts is Souq Al Waqif, which is the new old of Doha. It was a project mooted by the Emir's wife to emulate the old markets of Doha so new immigrants to the country could have a taste of Qatar's history and culture.
About anything and everything from expensive linens, hand woven Persian carpets, gold accessories to steel crockery, spices, tea and snacks can be found in Souq Al Waqif; that is, if one is not lost in its colourful sights, exciting aromas and complicated intertwining alleys.
Beyond the character of the place, it is the people - easy, relaxed and personal - who have won me over.
The continuous unrest in the Middle East has cast a distorted image of the Arabs in the minds of many. But having lived among the Qataris for about a year, I have been able to experience the warmth and friendliness of the region's people.
During the winter, a colleague and I had to work into the wee hours of the night for an extended period. On our drive home from the office, which was situated in the desert, we would often pull over by the side of the road to do some star-gazing.
On the first night we did that, at least a handful of Qataris stopped their cars to ask if we needed help or a ride. In the subsequent evenings, a string of Qataris continued to stop and offer assistance. Even though these encounters were brief, the friendliness and concern shown to strangers warmed us immediately in those cold winter nights. Perhaps given their nomadic roots in the harsh desert, it is instinctive for them to extend a helping hand whenever it is needed.
In terms of gender relations, attitudes in the Arabic world remain largely male-dominant in the public sphere. The idea of a female engineer doing field work, pounding the work site and doing physically demanding work, is to many an unusual sight, even eliciting the occasional frown from the locals.
I had to learn to accept that in certain situations, I, as a female, am expected to take a supporting role to male colleagues, and to approach matters from a different perspective.
Of course, the gender grid also gives women certain perks. My job requires me to get my hands dirty, for example, when collecting wastewater and sludge samples, but my local colleagues never let me do those jobs. They get another engineer or operator to carry out the "dirty" work while I supervise from a distance. That's one gender attitude I quickly got used to!
Adapting to a new environment and way of life is always a challenge. Adapting to an ever-changing Doha can be even more unnerving. The only way to fit in and survive is to go with the flow, ride out the changes, and make them work for you.
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This article was first published in The Business Times.