Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Waffling About

Eggo Waffle
I have a confession to make. I have begun to hoard things. This came about after yet another shortage of a particular food item. This time it is waffles. Now I am one who can live without many things, but a recently turned 4 year old cannot.

Like clockwork, it has been A’s morning ritual since we moved to Doha to have a waffle for breakfast every single morning. I sometimes wonder when he might get tired of them, but until then I have to indulge in his little idiosyncrasies. Back home, it was de-crusted Nutella sandwiches and, I kid you not, shwarma strips. But in the land of shwarmas, he won’t touch them with a 10 foot pole.

Eggo brand waffles are not easily available here. I once purchased them from my regular grocery store called the Family Food Center, but they have now discontinued carrying them. My next option was a store called Mega Mart where many western expats go to purchase their groceries. Mega Mart contains many comfort foods from back home (think Cheese Wiz, Oscar Meyer, Marmite for the Brits …). They also charge about 50% more than what one would usually pay, but this is a small price to pay for items that will bring comfort and retain sanity, namely mine.

There were once 2 Mega Mart stores, but the one closest to my home recently closed to make way for a brand new Carrefour. Carrefour can be best described as the French version of Walmart. Very nice, especially if you are in the mood for items such as soupe des poisons, gateau Breton, crème fraiche etc, but they do not carry many items that we are used to. So now expats flock to the lone Mega Mart in Doha. This also means that there’s a fat chance one will find the items they are searching for. After 2 fruitless trips however, we did get lucky. There in the freezer section sat a giant industrial sized box of, you guessed it, Eggo waffles. We grabbed it before anyone else could lay their hands on them.

My freezer is now half full of waffles, and every morning I take out one precious piece. I lightly toast it, butter it with some sublime French butter bought at Carrefour, and drizzle a small amount of Aunt Jemima syrup on top, also purchased at Mega Mart. I then cut it into small bite size pieces and place it on a Batman plate, since in the morning only Batman will do. Now my next project is either to wean A off waffles, or buy a waffle iron. I would bet on the latter.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Ken and Barbie - in Doha

Ken and Barbie
They are married of course. Cohabitation laws are very strict here. If you live together you have to be married, otherwise is strictly against the law. In some Gulf countries the punishment is time in an un-air conditioned jail (no room service either), lashings, and in case the perpetrator is an expat, eventual deportation. These laws are also present in Qatar, but are not implemented as harshly, assuming the culprit is non-Muslim and a Westerner. But, common sense should prevail along with respect for the culture and religion. The old rule and cliché ‘when in Rome … ‘ should be followed.

The Arab culture has a deep respect for the institutions of marriage and family. Here, married couples and families enjoy many privileges and garner great respect. So if you are thinking of moving to Doha and are married, better yet with kids, come on over!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Road to Makkah

Makkah sign
Labbaik Allah humma labbaik (here I am at your service, o my Lord, here I am). These are the words chanted by millions of Muslims from around the world when they are on their way to perform the pilgrimage to Makkah (also spelled Mecca); either for Hajj, which is performed annually and lasts for a minimum of 5 days, or for Umrah (also known as Hajj Asghar or small Hajj), which can be performed in a few hours and can be performed year round. Last week we were one of the blessed ones to perform this sacred ritual.

Our visa to Saudi Arabia was granted in 10 days; there are several agencies in Doha which will compile all necessary paperwork and obtain the visas for a nominal fee. We had specifically applied for an Umrah visa, as opposed to a visit visa; which is more difficult to obtain. We had planned to drive; hence we applied for a driving visa. Incidentally, a driving visa is separate from a flying one, but one needs to be driving their own car (as opposed to a bank owned one). Also, only one family per vehicle is permitted. Insurance to drive in Saudi Arabia is obtained at the border, and is quite reasonable.

Driving to Makkah, though arduous, is not unfeasible; many people I now have done so. The distance is about 1,286 km or about 800 miles - one way. The roads are similar to freeways/highways in any developed country, with plenty of rest stops and refueling stations along the way. The scenery is, of course, of desert vistas of various hues, with Bedouin tents and camels speckling the sandy and occasionally rocky terrain. We crossed the border in approximately 1 hour without any obstacles. We did go through some unfamiliar procedures, mainly on the Saudi side, but overall everything went smoothly.

After an 8 hour drive from Doha to Riyadh- the capital of Saudi Arabia, we realized we did not have enough time or energy to go any farther, and decided to forgo the additional 10 hour drive. We then booked a flight on a local Saudi Arabian discount airline called Sama and flew to Jeddah (1 ½ hours), from there we drove to Makkah which is about 1 hour away.

The feeling one has when entering the gates of the Masjid Al Haram, the mosque which surrounds the Ka’aba (the name Ka’aba comes from the Arabic word muka'ab meaning "cube") and beholding it is beyond description. The range of emotions one feels is intense and overwhelming. This is something every Muslim who has had the great fortune to witness knows, and one who has not, yearns for. I had been there a few times as a child, but for K and the children it was the first time.

After spending 3 peaceful days in Makkah, we started our journey back home. We met several family members along the way, whose gracious hospitality was greatly appreciated. On the drive back to Doha we stopped at a Saudi truck stop. It had a small restaurant with a separate room for families; here we sat on mats on the floor and enjoyed a simple, delicious and memorable meal.

As I have written before, the reasons for our move to Qatar were many, being in lose proximity to the holy cities is one of the more important ones. We are now back home and are looking forward to our next visit. It is every Muslims belief it is Allah who calls upon us to come to Makkah. I pray he calls me many, many times throughout my life.