Three weeks into my time in Qatar, I heard what has become my favorite description of the country.
The comment came from an Australian expatriate who has been living in Doha for several years now. When I told her that I was new to Qatar, she proceeded to tell me what it’s like to live here, how to get involved in different communities, and so on. She summed it all up by saying “Qatar is like an outpost, like Mos Eisley in Star Wars.”
Being a huge Star Wars fan, I instantly recalled the scene. But at that point, I didn’t have enough time in-country to assess the accuracy of the comparison. Now, three months in, I know exactly what she meant. This obscure reference captures one of the most defining aspects of my experience in Qatar so far: the stunning diversity.
In the Star Wars universe, Mos Eisley is a major trading center and spaceport on the desert planet of Tatooine. Spaceships from across the galaxy stop at this commercial hub during their travels, making Mos Eisley home to a dizzying array of creatures. As the camera pans across the busy streets and marketplaces, viewers see creatures of every shape, size, and color. Some have spent their entire lives there, some visit regularly, and some are one-time visitors. The whole scene is a rich display of diversity.
Like the crowds in Mos Eisley, the communities I’ve encountered and become a part of in Qatar are highly diverse. I live and work at Qatar University (QU), so many of my friends are students with whom I live in the dorm and researchers with whom I work at the office. I also attend a church, and have made several friends in that community. Taken together, my friends and colleagues at QU and church represent 36 different countries, spanning every inhabited continent (though there is only one person from South America). The full list of countries can be found at the end of this post. What’s more, their reasons for coming to Qatar are almost as diverse as the community itself. Some came for higher salaries, some out of a desire to travel, and some to escape a lack of opportunity in their home country.
Qatar’s demographics are somewhat unique. Native Qataris comprise about 12% of the population, expatriates from India make up about 25%, and the remaining 63% is composed of expatriates from a highly fragmented mix of countries. So, I knew there would be many nationalities represented here. I also knew that Qatar University attracts students from a wide array of countries. But even with this background, I’ve been surprised by the diversity of Qatar’s population.
In addition to making for interesting “where are you from?” small talk, this wide range of nationalities has led to some memorable experiences. Last month, for example, I stumbled into a conversation in the QU dorm comparing the benefits of English vs. French colonialism. The students with whom I was talking were from Ghana (an English colony until 1957) and Togo (a French colony until 1960), and the conversation was initiated by me asking about their time in high school. Before I knew it, the question “what language did they speak in your secondary school?” led to statements like “it was much better to be colonized by the English than the French.”
While I was aware that colonization has many modern-day consequences, I still saw colonialism as a relic of the past. However, as I listened to my friends’ conversation, I realized that my one-dimensional view contrasted sharply with their multifaceted perspectives on colonialism – born out of their personal experience – as a potent, active, and oftentimes tragic force in their lives. Their discussion was strikingly candid, even light-hearted, and reflected the ways in which colonialism continues to shape their experiences at home.
The impact of this diversity was on display again last week, when Robert Mugabe resigned as president of Zimbabwe. While people across the globe recognized the magnitude of the event, there was something special about seeing my friend from church, who is from Zimbabwe, react to the news as it first broke. We were gathered together for Tuesday evening bible study, and upon hearing the news she became overjoyed. Her face lit up as she excitedly called family and friends back home. Her joyfulness filled the entire room and reflected the significance of Mugabe’s resignation in a unique and powerful way.