We think and build.


Traveling to Qatar? Here is our experience in the first days in Qatar

This is the first of several articles that tell about our experience in Doha, Qatar, during the 6-month stay as a Fulbright scholar. I am alone. My family will follow me in about a week. That will give me a chance to clear things up and prepare for your arrival. I am excited about this trip and can’t wait to see what the Gulf is like. I’m a little anxious about what to do in case I don’t find someone waiting for me at the airport. I tried to get my address before I arrived but was told everything would be ready when you arrived.

The plane lands and I feel a little more than the usual sense of urgency from those around me to leave the plane. The airport seems very small, maybe the size of Knoxville. A bus meets the plane and I manage to get on the second bus. When we arrive at the terminal, things look clean and organized. In a few minutes, I’m through passport control, collecting my luggage, and walking out of the terminal hoping to find someone waiting for me. I see someone carrying a photo of me and I feel relieved.

The university sent someone from their external relations to meet with me, and the department also sent an engineer. This is a good start. The external relations person greets me, points out a driver who will take me to my new home for the next few months, and quickly apologizes. The other person talks to the driver and I understand that he will follow us to my future residence. My driver is Indian, Muslim and speaks English with a strong accent, but I can still partially understand what he is saying as we start our journey.

Doha looks like a small city, I can’t see any skyscrapers as we drive. The buildings are mostly small white and yellow buildings. I’m a bit disappointed, but I know I’ve seen skyscrapers on the internet; I must be on the wrong side of town. I ask the driver if he can help me when my family arrives in a few days and he tells me that I have to talk to his boss. We arrived at a gated complex. Looks like it’s still under construction; at least parts of it look this way. We parked the car; a Qatari person approaches me, greets me and points me towards a 2-story building.

My apartment is on the second floor, he says. “I thought I was supposed to live in a villa,” I question. She indicates that she would have to discuss that with QU. He quickly shows me around the apartment, stopping in the kitchen and pointing out a few basics, like milk and juice, like hospitality items. My luggage is moved to the apartment. Taking a quick look, I don’t notice a phone in the apartment, so I ask about it. We send a request to QTEL, the telephone company, and it will be installed in a few days. “How about the Internet?” I ask. “It will come with the phone since it will be a dial-up connection,” he notes.

I panic a bit. I am in a new city with no phone, car or internet. What if I have an emergency, need food, or just want to see the city? The university driver leaves me with the promise of being back at 8 AM to take me to the university. The other individual who puts me at the airport enters the scene. I quickly realize that he is an Egyptian who has been working at QU for a few years. He offers to take me to exchange money for Qatari riyals, buy a cell phone and have lunch. This is an offer I couldn’t refuse. I had no idea when my next meal would be!

We entered a commercial area made up of small shops and entered a restaurant, Turkey Central, that’s what it was called. It didn’t seem fancy, but the food was good and relatively cheap. A plate of grilled meat costs around $6 and a large bottle of water is less than $1. No tip is required and there is no sales tax. For the first time in so many years, I can easily find out the exact number on the ticket, just add up your purchases. We then went to Al-Sadd Street, where several foreign currency exchange outlets are available. However, they were closed until 4pm. I learned that many of these shops take a break from 1 to 3 pm or 2 to 4 pm The exchange took only a few minutes, but as I had seen in Egypt, people are very particular about the shape of dollar bills. They will not be able to accept banknotes with marks, tears, etc. that you wouldn’t notice in the States.

Next was a visit to QTEL to get a Hala card to be inserted into my cell phone. This will allow me to buy prepaid cards for my cell phone. Since I had no residence in Qatar, I was not allowed to get a regular cell phone or landline. The application also only a few minutes. I paid 100 riyals for my cell phone number and now I am ready to buy a cell phone. My host takes me to Carrefour where I bought a basic cell phone ($50).

I felt relieved. I have a way to contact the outside world. I learned that the emergency number in Qatar is 999. The cost per minute to use the cell phone is 55 dirhams/minute (16 cents/minute). QTEL is a monopoly, so it’s easy for them to keep the rates so high. This was the first thing I missed about the states, an open market, where competition works in favor of the consumer. My host takes me back to my apartment. I appreciated all the help from him and I am ready to spend my first night in Qatar.

Things are so quiet around me. I think I’m alone in the entire apartment building. With no television or internet or anyone to talk to, I turn to television. There were hundreds of channels. Many were Arabic channels, many were European channels. I couldn’t find any US channels that are not encrypted. To my great surprise, while checking the TV channels, I noticed that some European channels requested phone sex with live nudity. It was so obscene; I thought to myself “I have to find a way to block these channels”. How was I going to let my kids flip through the TV channels without knowing what they would see?

This was the second thing I missed from the US: “Parental Controls”. Something I did not expect to miss in a Muslim country like Qatar. I was shocked that the government would allow this to happen in a country where almost all the women I have seen so far are covered, except for their eyes. Some will even cover their face completely with a black veil. This was one of the first signs of contradiction that I felt in Qatar.


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