Cultural exchange program smashes stereotypes on both sides of divide

By David Lepeska
The National, Aug 2010

DOHA // “Arabs are dangerous" -- that's what high-school pupil Leah Ogawa heard as her Arabic-language class was preparing for a spring break trip to the Gulf.

“Some kids in our school were saying ‘Be careful!’ when we were going to Qatar,” recalled Ms Ogawa, 17, a senior at Boston Arts Academy. “Because of 9/11, many people have negative images of Arabs.”

In the end, she had no reason to be nervous about meeting her Qatari counterparts. “They are so nice,” she said. “I got close to most of them.”

As the controversial leader of a proposed Islamic centre near where the World Trade Center once stood in New York City visits Doha on a US-backed diplomatic tour, the success of a less touted cultural exchange program highlights the possibility for smashing stereotypes and building bridges between the the West and the Arab world.

“I was expecting that they weren’t going to be open to us, but that was one of the shocking things I discovered there,” said Jawahar al Mal, 16, a senior at Al Bayam Independent Secondary School for Girls, referring to a Qatar Foundation International (QFI)-backed trip a couple dozen Qatari students took to the US last month. “They were very open to our religion, treating us like close friends, not the way the movies portray.”

Founded in Washington in 2007, QFI is one of only a handful of Gulf nonprofits based in the West. Others include the Mohammed bin Issa Foundation in London and the Washington-based Oasis Foundation.

Though independent, it is part of an effort by the Qatar Foundation, its main backer, to foster understanding and facilitate international collaboration through education, health, technology and community-service initiatives.

QFI’s main initiative is its Arabic-language and culture program, which supports Arabic courses in US high schools – providing funding for qualified teachers, books and computer labs, and developing an Arabic-language teacher-training program.

The course incorporates traditions, holidays, cuisine and bits of religion. “We started this with a bit of trepidation. We were not sure how well it would be received,” the QFI’s executive director, Maggie Salem, said in a recent interview.

The ongoing storm over the proposed Islamic community centre has some American politicians and commentators denouncing Muslims just as the centre’s leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, passes through the Gulf on a mission funded by the US State Department. He is in Qatar this week.

But the timing of QFI’s Arabic programme could hardly be better. The number of US college students studying in Arabic-speaking countries jumped six-fold from 2002 to 2007, according to the Institute of International Education.

“We’re fighting wars there, there’s a lot of interaction with the region that kids can’t ignore,” said Ms Salem. “We would love to create a generation of fluent 18-year-olds, but what we’d like even better is if they appreciated something about the richness of the people and the culture.”

They seem headed in the right direction. Students at Boston Arts Academy and Washington Latin High School shower praises on QFI’s Arabic language pilot programme, launched last year.

“The Arabic programme in my school was phenomenal,” said Damon Mallory, a recent graduate of Boston Arts Academy. His class saw the film Amreeka, went to an Arabia exhibit at a Boston museum and attended a concert by the Palestinian rap group DAM. “The more I engaged myself into this new culture,” he said, “I fell in love with it.”

His schoolmate had a similar experience. “The programme was amazing,” said Ms Ogawa. “I just enjoyed everything that we did.”

A highlight was the April trip to Qatar to meet students at their sister schools. “Meeting the Qataris was by far the best thing I have done,” said Mr Mallory. “I have made life-long friends, and even best friends.”

During the US students’ visit a Qatari teacher suggested a US trip for his students. Within a couple weeks, the QFI chairman, Sheikh Jassim bin Abdulazia al Thani, had approved the idea. By July, the Qatari students were on their way to the US.

The 10-day tour included visits to the American capital and the Nasa Space Center and a beach clean-up in Florida. But the Qataris most enjoyed spending time with American students. “If they wanted to ask us about anything, we answered them; if we wanted to ask them, we did,” said Essa al Malki, 15, a sophomore at Doha Independent School for Boys. “There was no boundaries between us. It was very comfortable.”

Mr Mallory and his new friend Fahad al Nahdi, a senior at Doha Independent School, hope to build on the connection established this summer. They are developing their own QFI initiative, an online network and social forum for students that aims to improve relations between cultures, starting with the Arab and American communities.

“Damon and I fell in love with what QFI was doing and wanted to get involved,” said Mr al Nahdi. After receiving approval from QFI, they submitted their idea – called QFI Step-Up – to the Clinton Global Initiative for funding.

“We believe that it is important to display to the world how alike we are,” said Mr Mallory, “as opposed to how the media present us to each other.”

edited version ran in the 27 Aug 2010 The National ( www.thenational.ae)


Dongria Dodge Vedanta Dig

Great news from India this week, where Environmental Minister Jairam Ramesh rejected the planned alumina mine of London-based mining giant Vedanta resources on the basis that it represented an existential threat to the local Dongria Kondh tribe.

Activists and journalists have been saying as much for years, including yours truly -- here's a story I wrote about the the Dongria's love for Niyamgiri just over a year ago.

Ramesh's decision suggests that Delhi may be starting to realize that all development is not good development, and that major extraction projects like the Niyamgiri mine often lead to more recruits for the Maoists that have been waging a rebellion across the Indian heartland for decades, but with greater intensity of late. No surprise, however, to find that Congress is already using the Dongria victory for political mileage.


A Ramadan where old meets new

DOHA // This is not your grandfather’s Ramadan.

Thousands of visitors strolled through the Doha Summer Fun Park one evening this week, stopping to nibble on cotton candy and ice cream, check out some Islam-themed television serials or watch their children smash into each other on bumper cars.

Organised each year by the Qatar Tourism Authority, the amusement park is larger than ever in 2010, and starting this year, has been extended to include Ramadan and Eid.

It is all part of a new, more festive commemoration of the holy month.

“When I was little we played simple games for Ramadan, or packed up a picnic and went to the beach,” said Hamad Salman, a Doha native and marketing executive for Qatar Petroleum. He had come to the fun park with his teenage son and daughter for the second time, and planned to come again.

“This is much better,” added Salman, looking around the colourful, brightly lit, 12,000 square metre space, children shouting and laughing as they were spun around, up and down. “All these games and rides make a big difference.”

Droves of Qataris and other Doha residents attend similarly lively affairs late into the night across the city, from malls to hotels to cultural centres. Gondolania, the indoor amusement park at Villaggio mall, has extended its opening hours past 2am, so kids can bowl and ride go-karts and roller coasters late into the night.

Qatar’s only water park is set to open its doors in the coming weeks, and host Ramadan events. Fanar, the Qatar Islamic Cultural Centre, has organised an evening to teach expatriates more about Ramadan and its traditions this weekend.

Doha’s four- and five-star hotels are hosting lavish nightly iftar and suhoor events, some with Egyptian dancers, Lebanese bands, henna tattoos, falconry exhibitions and up to 50 dishes for tasting. As part of its Ramadan celebrations, the W Hotel Doha is giving away airline tickets that enable the holder to fly anywhere in the world on Qatar Airways.

The fun park is one of the more popular events, with some 4,000 nightly visitors to the cavernous Doha Exhibition Centre. “Breaking away from past events, which were held in shopping malls, Doha Summer Fun Park takes full advantage of the space,” said Lahdan al Mohannadi, head of internal exhibitions at the Qatar Tourism Auhtority and lead organiser of the fun park. “In addition, this year the event is free for all.”

Buoyant Arab and carnival music fills the space. At one end is a souk, filled with shops offering Yemeni honey, leather purses, perfumes, jewellery and more. At the other a food court offers doughnuts, hot dogs, pizza, fried chicken, and shawarma. In between are a couple of dozen rides, including a choo-choo train and caterpillar coaster for toddlers, and dodgems, video games and a dozen more active rides for the bigger kids.

The al Mannai brothers – Hamad and Ahmed, 10, and Mohammad, 13 – enjoyed the Tilt-a-Whirl so much they got right back on and did it again. “That was a lot of fun,” said Mohammed as the trio walked away dizzily.

These events, most of which aim to entertain the whole family, may be bringing a sense of community back to Ramadan in Qatar. “We’ve lost some of our traditions, of course,” said Moza al Malki.

A family therapist and commentator, she has seen Ramadan change several times in recent decades, from more to less strict and back again. “But nowadays we are going back to some of these old traditions.”

For the first couple weeks after the fun park opened, on-stage performances included clowns, magic shows and games. Starting with Ramadan, the stage has been re-made into a traditional Qatari house with garden, and programming includes a series of plays, a theatre group performing folklore tales and a Syrian band playing traditional music.

“Several new activities were added to instill traditional values during the holy month,” said Mr al Mohannadi. The fun park and Doha’s Heritage Village are both hosting Garangou (also known as Karankou) events for families.

Garangou is a traditional Gulf children’s festival held on the 14th day of Ramadan. Children will play heritage games and sing traditional songs, along with other activities and competitions.

“We are staying together more, families going out together,” said al Malki. “Also generosity, giving food to our neighbours, this is also returning.”

In Al Mansoura, on the edge of Doha, the W Hotel Doha and the Islamic Bank of Qatar have set up an air-conditioned tent to provide iftar to the underprivileged.

More than 150 male labourers turn up daily to break their fast with dates, laban, fruits, rice, bread, chicken and lamb.

“These are the people that really need the full meal,” said a spokesperson for Islamic Bank of Qatar, which has done the charity tent for three years running. “A lot of the staff from the bank also volunteer – everybody pitches in.”

Back at the Doha Exhibition Centre, Mr Salman watched his children on the City Hopper ride. “Ready to come down yet?” he shouted to his son, whizzing past overhead.

The teenager smiled and shook his head.

Ran with photos in the 20 August 2010 The National, www.thenational.ae

"Ground Zero mosque" imam readies for Gulf mission

Doha// The furore over a planned Islamic centre just blocks from Ground Zero in New York City mounted as the imam behind the proposal readies for a US-backed diplomatic mission to the Gulf.

As Feisal Abdul Rauf prepares to visit Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE on a State Department-sponsored trip, debate is raging in the US about whether he is moderate enough to explain American views of Islam to the world.

“This radical is a terrible choice to be one of the faces of our country overseas,” two Republican Party members of Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Peter King of New York, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Mr Rauf’s speaking tour was planned before the proposed Islamic centre controversy erupted. It was organised as part of the President Barack Obama’s effort to improve America’s relations with the Muslim world.

Officials at the US State Department have lauded the imam’s record of moderation, noting that he has participated in two previous diplomatic tours, including one during the administration of George W Bush. PJ Crowley, a State Department spokesman, said Mr Rauf would “discuss Muslim life in America and promote religious tolerance” during the visit. Exact dates and venues have not been announced.

The controversy erupted in May when the proposed $120 million (Dh440.7m) Islamic cultural centre, to be located three blocks from the site of the felled World Trade Center towers, received approval from a local community board. In addition to a domed prayer space, the facility is to include a 500-seat theatre, culinary school, swimming pool, library and art studios.

Opponents of the complex complain that it is a symbolic victory for the September 11 hijackers.

Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the US House of Representatives, has compared supporters of the facility to Nazis. The Anti-Defamation League, which says it fights “anti-Semitism and all former of bigotry”, worries the mosque “will cause some [9/11] victims more pain”.

Proponents point out that Mr Rauf, who holds a physics degree from Columbia University, is a follower of the moderate Sufi form of Islam and has a reputation for attempting to build interfaith ties with Christian and Jewish groups. He also set up the Cordoba Initiative in 2004 to improve western relations with the Islamic world.

Calling it a “weapon of mass construction”, talk show host Stephen Colbert lampooned the politically conservative perspective, saying, “Every permit granted to a mosque is one denied to an American house of worship – a mall.”

Mr Rauf, who has been barred by the State Department from using government-funded travel to solicit financial support for the project, has said he sees the planned mosque as a way “to amplify the moderate voices that reject terrorism and seek mutual understanding and respect with all faiths”.

Mr Obama voiced support for the mosque project during the annual White House Ramadan dinner on Aug 11. A week earlier, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered a speech in support of Mr Rauf’s plan.

The president later clarified his comments, suggesting that while Muslims have the right to build a house of worship, it did not mean that building a mosque near Ground Zero was the right thing to do.

Abdulaziz Al Mohannadi, an engineering student at Texas A&M University-Qatar, thought Mr Rauf might be able to provide an answer to a nagging question for many Gulf natives: what do Americans think of Muslims and Islam?

“When we think of America we only get ideas from the media, from news and the movies,” he said. “To have a true Muslim-American come to us and explain how Americans see Muslims, how they interpret us in their country, that would be great.”

originally ran in 19 August 2010 The National, www.thenational.ae


Qatar's extraordinary boom

DOHA // It's probably time to add Qatar to the list of great modern-day growth stories.

Its GDP and population have doubled since 2004, and as of June, there were 18,000 buildings under construction – more than one for every 100 people in the country.

Most of that construction is taking place in Doha, which has exploded from a population of 500,000 people in 2004 to 1.3 million today, blossoming from a small, quiet burg to a buzzing, polyglot city of business, research and progressive thinking.

“The rate of growth in Doha is nothing short of extraordinary,” said Robert Puentes, an urban growth analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, adding that no major American city had ever grown at this pace.

Labourers, scientists, academics, designers and financiers have come knocking. According to the World Population Bureau, Qatar’s net migration rate of nearly 10 per cent is nearly double those of its nearest competitors – Bahrain, Singapore and the UAE.

As its natural-gas fuelled economy zips along – one of the world’s fastest growing at an estimated growth rate of 16 per cent this year – the good times are likely to continue for Qatar.

“Its incredible, but it’s expected in Qatar,” said Hatem Samman, the head of Booz & Company’s Ideation Centre, a thinktank based in Dubai.

“The trend for Qatar is headed in the right direction, given that there is economic and population growth to rival any country in the world,” he said.

Masraf al Rayan, a financial analyst, estimates Qatar’s population will reach 2 million by 2013, which means Doha will grow by an additional 20 per cent in the next three years.

This explains the capital’s construction boom, which includes a major airport, the US$20 billion (Dh73.45bn) Pearl Qatar residential and retail development, the $5.5bn Musheireb urban-renewal project downtown and the $14bn Lusail City residential and commercial waterfront development. The number of hotel rooms in Doha is set to double in the next two years even as new financial centres, exhibition facilities and housing complexes appear.

Landlords might argue the city has enough housing. The number of units has increased by nearly 150 per cent since 2004, outpacing the population boom. Doha has become a tenants’ market, with rents down 50 per cent or more in the past 18 months, including 11 per cent in the first quarter of this year, according to Asteco, the property advisory firm.

Ibrahim Ibrahim, an economic adviser to the Qatari government, expects economic expansion to slow by more than half in the next two years as major energy and infrastructure projects are completed and tens of thousands of labourers return home.

“Part of this new population will eventually leave, in the short term,” said Mr Samman. “But still many people are going to stay, maybe two thirds will stay and it should be fine.”

One government estimate has the country’s population growing as little as 500,000 by 2030.

Mr Puentes said, “Unless a comprehensive approach is taken to managing growth there is certainly a risk of overbuilding.” He spoke of the problems the vacation hotspot of Las Vegas and other American cities have faced because of a glut of housing in the economic downturn.

“There are more vacant homes for sale now than at any time in our nation’s history,” he said, referring to the US. “This is a problem because it can breed crime and disorder, and also accelerate a process of further disinvestment from certain neighbourhoods.”

He urged Qatari leaders to find a way to make vacant properties productive and also to be mindful of carbon reduction and the demands of climate change.

“The world economy is rapidly moving away from carbon-based fuels and towards new sources of energy,” he said.

For Qatar, this would mean altering construction and building methods, as in other countries, but also great economic diversification. This is not news to Qatari leaders.

Qatar’s domestic expansion is in line with its rising international profile. It is the world leader in exports of liquid natural gas, but it also wields the increasing reach and influence of al Jazeera TV and promotes peace, education and charity via diplomatic conferences and the Qatar Foundation.

Some might argue Doha has wrestled the title of world’s fastest growing city from Dubai. But Mr Puentes sees the regional centres as allies.

“A co-operative network would make sense,” he said. “They must remember that they operate in a global marketplace. Metros that are able to grow and attract globally-connected, high-value service firms can access, and benefit from, a worldwide array of customers, workers, and contracted services, ultimately boosting quality growth at home.”

originally appeared in the 13 Aug 2010 The National.