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A Third Qatari Travelogue

(If you want to read the first couple of travelogues, you can read the first one here and the second one here.)


The very first time I was in Qatar was in part of the buildup to Ramadan. I did some traveling and tourism even went over one of those yachts services I found visit this for more infoOne of the DJs said something to the effect of “Ramadan happens every year, people… you don’t all have to go to the grocery store at the same time on the day before it starts…” in the exact same tone of voice that DJs in the US say about the last few shopping days before Christmas. When I left Qatar last time, though, it was on the first day of Ramadan. My experience of it was realizing that I was chewing gum while driving and then freaking out and spitting it out before going to the airport and seeing that all of the little coffee kiosks were closed. Well, closed for a couple of hours, anyway. They opened as soon as the sun went down.

This time, Ramadan started before I went out there and ended after I left. I did not really experience Ramadan at all last year. Like, not even *CLOSE*.


When I was elbows deep in this stuff way back in college, we discussed the five pillars of Islam and Sawm was always one that was described as fasting as a form of privation. Here, I’ll let Wikipedia do the heavy lifting:

Three types of fasting (Siyam) are recognized by the Quran: Ritual fasting, fasting as compensation for repentance (both from sura Al-Baqara), and ascetic fasting (from Al-Ahzab).

Ritual fasting is an obligatory act during the month of Ramadan. Muslims must abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk during this month, and are to be especially mindful of other sins. Fasting is necessary for every Muslim that has reached puberty (unless he/she suffers from a medical condition which prevents him/her from doing so).

The fast is meant to allow Muslims to seek nearness and to look for forgiveness from God, to express their gratitude to and dependence on him, atone for their past sins, and to remind them of the needy. During Ramadan, Muslims are also expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam by refraining from violence, anger, envy, greed, lust, profane language, gossip and to try to get along with fellow Muslims better. In addition, all obscene and irreligious sights and sounds are to be avoided.

Fasting during Ramadan is obligatory, but is forbidden for several groups for whom it would be very dangerous and excessively problematic. These include pre-pubescent children, those with a medical condition such as diabetes, elderly people, and pregnant or breastfeeding women. Observing fasts is not permitted for menstruating women. Other individuals for whom it is considered acceptable not to fast are those who are ill or traveling. Missing fasts usually must be made up for soon afterward, although the exact requirements vary according to circumstance.

See that? There’s not very much of an emphasis on funtime. The stuff that is depicted there pretty much matches the tenor of what I’ve been officially taught about Ramadan. Abstinence. Mindfulness. Atonement for sin. Awareness of the less fortunate. Ritual fasting.


Instead of going alone or with a team of my peers, this time we brought my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss with us. He is a guy who originally hails from Southeast Asia and his phenotype is also Southeast Asian.

The rest of my team (white, chubby, obviously American) deferred to him a great deal. Qatari Nationals, however, did things like jump ahead of him in line, berate him when he was not standing immediately near us, and otherwise treated him very poorly. By comparison, not a single one of us had any interactions whatsoever with Qatari Nationals. They gave the rest of my team a very, very wide berth.


Last time I went to Qatar, I stumbled across Mohammed the baker’s “Kabab Al Tayeb”.

In the time between when I was last there in October and this June, he moved his store a couple hundred yards. This was really, really confusing because we found where we were almost certain he was last time… but he wasn’t there. I was willing to be the ugly American and ask in nouns where the baker went and one of the waitpersons for a nearby hookah parlor pointed the way.

“Kebab? Baker?”

“Kebab? Kebab!” He gave a quick whistle as he pointed down an alley and then turned his hand to the right and whistled again.

It was all the way back and hidden down some weird and obscure alleyways. We’d never have chanced upon it where it was now… but Mohammed expanded his place due to his good fortune and we were able to sit down and eat rather than just order and then have to scurry off to find an empty bench somewhere.


We ordered a $7 meat plate that had herbed and spiced chicken and kebab and lamb on it that would have cost $40 back in the states. It came with half a lemon that we squoze over the meat ourselves. We ordered naan that came fresh out of the kiln and we got 5 for a dollar.

We hoovered up the food and then had to order a second meat plate and second pile of naan.

One of the best meals I’ve ever had. A little dinky bakery in the Souk Waqif for a meal that would have cost me, alone, less than $10.

If you find yourself in Souk Waqif, you *MUST* try to find Kabab Al Tayeb. Write that down: “Kabab Al Tayeb”. It’s absolutely amazing.


There was a type of ad everywhere that I don’t remember being there last time. It was the “use our product and win a chance to win a lot of money!” kind of ad. Use our credit card and win Qatari Riyal. Drink Coca-Cola and win gold (you can see one of these ads in the background of one of the pictures in the article for Mohammed the baker). Use our service and become a millionaire in American Dollars!

While these ads are part of the background noise in the US (play Monopoly at McDonald’s!), they struck me as being somewhat out of place. Of course they weren’t only targetting Qatari Nationals (though Qatari Nationals or, at least, models dressed like Qatari Nationals featured prominently in the ads that had people in them) but I thought it odd that there were so very *MANY* of these kinds of ads around when, last time, there weren’t that many.

Then I checked the price of oil and the price of oil in June of 2014 was around $105.54 a barrel. Last year, in June, it was a little more than half that ($59.12). This year, for June, it’s $47.56/barrel but that’s bouncing back after hitting a low of $28.50 in January. (Natural gas has a similar roller coaster last couple of years.)

People in Qatar who get checks from the government based on oil/natural gas revenues have likely seen variance in the checks they receive.


Everyone in the hotel spoke at least two languages: their own native tongue and English. This resulted in everyone who worked there speaking in lightly-to-heavily-accented English to each other and it was rare if two people shared the same accent. Everything seemed to work smoothly insofar as the customer service was always exceptional. The breakfast people, for example, memorized our breakfast drink orders after the second day and, following that, they had our coffees or our espressos or our Diet Pepsis ready for us as we sat down at our table without us having to order them.



The driving around this time was a lot better than last time. I learned that Ramadan is a time of year when people stay up very, very late. Late enough that, the next morning, they sleep in. As such, in the morning, the streets were much less congested and crazy. Driving in the evening had issues when we were within 30 minutes of sunset, but if we were outside of that window, everyone else either hadn’t really left yet or everyone had already gotten to where they were going to. I wouldn’t say that the driving wasn’t bad… but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the last two times I went.

Due to Ramadan, I noticed the sheer amount of variance for sunrise/sunset that where you are in any given timezone has. I live in the westernmost state of a timezone. Qatar is in its timezone somewhere analogous to where Maine is in its timezone. Far enough east to make you think that there must be some timezone shenanigans going on. (Colorado sunrise, for example, is 5:45 AM. Doha is 4:53. This makes it feel like an extra hour to sleep and get that much closer to sunset.)


You gotta feel bad for the people practicing Ramadan in Nordic countries. During the summer, anyway.


There’s a newspaper called “The Peninsula” that was part of our ritual every morning. We would sit and eat breakfast and one of us would read the headlines of the day to the others.

On the upper right, above the fold, there was usually a paragraph or two about what the Emir had done the day before. Perhaps he sent a cable to a foreign dignitary. Perhaps he hosted a meal for a foreign dignitary. Perhaps he held a conversation with a foreign dignitary over the telephone.

There was usually no bad news on the front page. If there happened to be a bad news story, it was never next to a second bad news story (at least while I was there). For the most part, you had to get to page 6 or further to get to any depressing stuff. Well, *LOCAL* depressing stuff. If bad stuff happened overseas, that could be front page material.


As far as I can tell from the English-language radio station that I listened to this time, the nightly iftar was a wonderful feast occasion that might best be compared to Thanksgiving dinner here in the States. There was much discussion of how it’s great that everybody always goes to everybody else’s house, how it’s not possible to visit every single person who invites you to an iftar during Ramadan but if you do it right you can visit two or three households each night. You can also check out some some great decals here for your windows.

I saw a handful of English-subtitled Ramadan-themed commercials while I was there. Here’s my favorite:

لمتنا تحلى في رمضان مع فودافون

Isn’t that perfect?


One of the things that I’ve found most troubling as I’ve been watching Radical Islam do its thing is my suspicion that Islam is somehow immune to modernity. Indeed, my first trip to Qatar, I was struck by how homogeneous the society was despite being only 12% Qatari Nationals with the rest of the society being made up of imported labor (a labor force that had absolutely no path whatsoever to being a stakeholder in the society beyond that of transactional beneficiary).

This time, however, I noticed a great many little incursions that were exceptionally familiar to me.

The English-speaking portion of the society’s treatment of Ramadan as having far more emphasis on the iftar than the fasting was one. The fact that non-English Ramadan commercials existed (and not only existed, played up the iftar as well) was another. The whole “Keep Christ In Christmas” thing? That seems to have an analogue over in Islam where people are complaining that Fasting during Ramadan is not all about food.

Fasting in Ramadan is Not All About Food – Islamic Reminder

As far as I can tell, from my worm’s eye view of being in the wealthiest country in the world (that happens to be experiencing societal shocks due to checks from the oil wealth being smaller), Islam is, in fact, going through a huge amount of trouble that is most analogous to the secularization of America while, at the same time, skipping over the analogues to the Reformation and Enlightenment. (Proving, I suppose, that Reformation and Enlightenment are not particularly inevitable.)

That said, the violence seems like something that is held at bay by the massive wealth rather than overcome by massive wealth.

It’s like they’ve exported a civil war. Or, I suppose, exported the Reformation (a period of schism that was horribly violent with all kinds of wars fought to resolve uncertainty and establish a new order). Remember, Luther wasn’t a progressive, per se. He was one of those guys who took a bunch of notes that said “LET’S GET BACK TO BASICS” and hammered these notes to a door.

So the conclusion that I reached was that, for better or worse, it looks like Islam is not immune to modernity. The gulf countries merely had enough money to pay the guys yelling “LET’S GET BACK TO BASICS” to go somewhere else, and Reform somewhere else, and kept writing checks to keep them there. When the money runs out, and it looks like the money is nowhere near as good as it used to be, it will be much more difficult to provide the logistical support that exporting schism requires. When Reformers can no longer be exported successfully, they won’t be.

At which point there will be a Reformation and, if the embedded Modernity works the way I think it will, an Enlightenment. Except instead of happening over decades/centuries, there will be a great leap forward.

That’s my take from here, anyway.

(All photos were taken by Jaybird)

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Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to AskJaybird-at-gmail.com

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77 thoughts on “A Third Qatari Travelogue

  1. I was in Istanbul during Ramadan in August 2011. It was brutal for those observing… 47 hours of daylight and pretty hot (but at least dry heat). But as Istanbul is (or was, at least… No idea the setting now) one of the more secular* and moderate locales with approaching 99% Muslim locals AND a major tourist destination, they were accommodating to those not observing. In fact they competed for our business; we were just reminded to consume our food in the restaurants and not on the street.

    Because of the warm weather, when the locals broke fast, it was AMAZING to see… The square between the Blue Mosque and Haggi Sophia filled with families deep into the night. One of our favorite sights — which naturally occured the one night we ventured out sans camera (neither of us had a smart phone back then) — were some young men gathered around a portable projection screen they setup to watch the national soccer team in a big match… Just steps from the Blue Mosque. If you framed it right, you’d have these gleeful young men cheering and reveling, the glow of this modern tech overshadowed by the beauty of a centuries old mosque. Amazing.

    By the way, where are you getting your Halal food stateside? You can get good street meat in NYC for like $7 and great stuff for $9. The takeout joints are a bit more ($12ish). There are some high end spots but they’re usually serving high-falutin’ stuff.


    Also, how far are you from Boulder? I’ll be there Sun-Weds.


    • Colorado Springs has a bunch of food trucks helped by legislation that says that breweries (even microbreweries) cannot serve food. So the microbreweries in town sell beer and have tables and there’s a food truck in front of each one of them. They seem to rotate around different breweries through the week, though. The guy in front of Red Leg on Monday night will be somewhere else on Tuesday (but back again on Monday).

      The food trucks are generally pretty good, but their foods run the gamut from “Jamaican” to “Mexican” without hitting “Middle Eastern”.

      Sunday Night, sadly, we’re booked and Mon-Wed are the proverbial school nights. Boulder is between 90 and 120 minutes drivetime, depending on the insanity of the roads (after rush hour, probably a lot closer to 90)… I don’t know that we could make it… Jeez. How often do you come out? I can ask for a day off next time and not worry about making it back to bed in time.


      • Yea, I should have told you earlier. I’m sorry about that. I am visiting a school (Boulder Journey School) that is a leader in the approach my school utilities (Reggio Emilia). I don’t have specific plans to return but imagine I will be back at some point. I’ll keep you updated. Enjoy your week… and the food trucks!

        By the way, what a dumb law. Some bars in NYC don’t have kitchens for one reason or another and will usually let you order in. Brooklyn Brewery turns their warehouse into a makeshift bar some days and lacks kitchen facilities so food trucks setup outside and deliverymen drop off menus. It’s kind of cool but lame if that is enforced by what I assume is a law drafted for lame reasons.


          • Yeah, I just remembered that there was something about how food trucks were a way for microbreweries to technically achieve some law or other. Without the food trucks there, they wouldn’t be able to do… something.


            • There is probably an interesting (series of?) post(s?) about laws surrounding alcohol and food delivery. Many NYC brick-and-mortar restaurants were pursuing legislation to cut back on them. They didn’t mind the hot dog vendor or chick-and-rice guy. But when the gourmet empanada truck setup down the block from the Mexican restaurant… well, now we have an issue with how sanitary they are or something or other.


            • It probably has to do with the particulars of the building that they’re in. There are similar establishments in San Jose (and, probably, most major cities these days) where the brewery will be just a rented warehouse space that someone set up brewing tanks in (next door is an auto-body shop, down from that is a kids’ bounce-house place, and at the end of the row is a place that sells fancy paper in bulk quantities.)

              So, since it was built as a warehouse, it won’t have a kitchen that meets all the requirements set by regulation about “kitchen that makes food for the public”. That sort of kitchen costs lots of money and isn’t useful for the “warehouse” function. Therefore, the place can’t serve food, beyond pre-made bagged snacks.


              • When my friends opened a creperie in Boston, they hit all sorts of snags. They tried (and were somewhat successful) to get around certain codes because they didn’t use oven or friers or anything involving gas… just those little electric crepe stones. But… they still served food that was prepared on premises so they did still need all sorts of things that made no sense for a place that ONLY made crepes but the laws weren’t written for people trying to skirt certain codes by ONLY using crepe stones.


          • It’s a matter of how the business is categorized and which licenses must be obtained. Being a “taproom” is much easier than being either a “restaurant” or a “bar”, but you can’t serve food or wine/liquor. The one in Olde Town Arvada (recently closed, to my regret, because they made some fine beer) had a deal with a bunch of the little restaurants within a couple blocks. You called the restaurant and ordered and a delivery guy showed up with your meal promptly.


      • 1) Agreed on taking a day off to eat ice cream if we get a couple weeks notice, that would be great.

        2) There’s no law about breweries either way, it’s just that a) it’s a lot cheaper / easier to run a bar without a kitchen and also cheaper / easier to run a food truck without a liquor license, so b) the food trucks and smaller breweries have developed a symbiotic restaurant.

        3) I’m pretty sure the little Egyptian place that sprung up recently (which we really like) is Halal (the owners are practicing Muslims) but around here, it’s not super useful to advertise that. Ah, Colorado Springs.


        • I should probably clarify, too, that ’round these parts we typically use “Halal” to refer to the types of dishes served and not necessarily the food routines/procedures. I mean, all the “Halal” trucks I referred to sell Halal food… but Halal food can take many forms and most of these are pretty standard lamb/chicken/falafel-and-rice.

          Do you have any Israeli joints? For some reason (well, I’m pretty sure I know the reason), I can convince people to go to an Israeli restaurant but not a Halal or ME restaurant… even though the cuisines are nearly identical.

          All-you-can-eat Indian buffets are another great way to stuff your gourd for cheap. The cuisine is different but is also rice based and super rich with all the sauces and spices. Those tend to be weekday lunch specials but every now and then you find one that is open weekends and BAMMO! Also, get the rice pudding. You probably think you’ve had rice pudding. Then you eat Indian rice pudding and you realize your grandma was wrong.

          I’ll definitely be better about advanced notice. I think I mentioned it to our other local Coloradan (Alan Scott? Maybe? I don’t know who people are) but should have reached out directly. If I make it back, the ice cream is on me.


          • “All-you-can-eat Indian buffets are another great way to stuff your gourd for cheap”

            *remembers the one good cheap Indian place that used to exist in the Springs*

            Colorado Springs is pretty much a cheap delicious food *desert*. Lots of places like you describe in Denver, but by the time one drives > 100 miles to go to dinner, it stops being cheap…


    • One of my favorite Ramadan stories is in Istambul (a place I used to visit 4-6 times a year). We are walking along Istiklal Av (a pedestrian avenue with the finest shops in town, visited by up to 3 million people a day) close to noon during Ramadan, and there comes two young women wearing black chadors (a very strange sight in itself in Istanbul, particularly in the modern, fancy, districts)

      These two women were religious enough to wear the full chador with only their faces showing, but not religious enough to stop them from walking along Istiklal eating a roasted corn cob each (a popular street food).

      On a separate subject, Turkish beer (Effes) is great


      • You remind me I never closed my asterisk…

        Yes, Istanbul is secular enough that the only people you see with head coverings are tourists, generally from other Muslim countries, visiting the major Muslim sights. I understand there isn’t necessarily hostility towards them, but they are definitely regarded as extreme by the locals.

        @j_a Why were you in Istanbul so often? You have me jealous! Easily in the top 2 for cities I’ve visited (Florence is the other). I’d love to go back but fear that may not be possible for a while.


        • Our company owned a power plant in European Turkey, about 100 km away. I was a member of the Board of Directors and we had quarterly meetings. We also had a lot of (unsuccessful) business development initiatives there.

          I miss going to Istanbul. It is indeed one of the greatest, bestest, ausomestest places in Earth


  2. With Islam, I think its a bit more complicated than Islam is strictly immune to modernity or Islam is prone to modernity as any other religion. Islamic traditionalists were able to watch how Christianity and Judaism were transformed by modernity and developed a strategy against Liberal Islam from appearing. It helped that the Wahhabis were able to team up with the Saudi Royal Family after the struck it rich with oil and had a lot of disposable income in their hand to spend on this project.

    Liberal Islam is slow to appear in Western countries because the social forces that led to Reform and Conservative Judaism becoming widespread no longer existed by the time Muslims began to live in the West in significant numbers. Non-Orthodox Judaism became widespread because it was a method for Jews to acculturate and assimilate into Western society without having to become fully Christian. Going full non-religious was not an option at the time, the 19th century, By the mid-20th century, Muslims who wanted to acculturate or assimilate could just become fully secular rather than having to develop a less traditional form of Islam to accommodate this. The problem with this is that while this strategy works for created modern Muslims individually, it isn’t an effective modernization for large groups of people.


    • developed a strategy against Liberal Islam from appearing.

      The strategy seems to be to send the reformers out and away. “Go reform over there.”

      So the reformers were out and about next to the ones most likely to secularize due to cultural cross-contamination.


      • Arguably, something similar happened to the Church of England in the 18th Century. There’s a viewpoint (I tend to subscribe to it) that the major spark of the religious divide between Europe and the Americas is that from the 18th Century on, all the rabble-rousers ended up over here, some of them even voluntarily. So now we have a concentration, and they have a paucity (fridge logic – this might affect the difference in how well seriously religious Muslims assimilate here vs. there, since we have centuries of experience at dealing with lunatics).


        • England kept a decent portion of what we would call Evangelical Christians until recently. They were seen as weird people by most other English people but there are some differences. Evangelical Christians in England were seen as part of the Left rather than the Right. They formed the back bone of the Labour Party for decades. The joke was that British socialism owed more to Methodism than Marxism. Many of the early founders of the Labour Party like Kier Hardie were lay Ministers. The leaders of the Labour Party before Tony Blair came from this milieu. The last two Labour Prime Ministers before Thatcher, Wilson and Callaghan, were from deeply religious Evangelical families.


    • @jaybird

      I think there are plenty of secular people who are Islamic. They tend to immigrate or keep it under wraps.

      A few years ago I met a guy from Saudi Arabia. He was here because his sister was studying in San Francisco and Saudi Arabai demands that all unmarried women travel with a male relative. Including international travel. He said his family was completely secular, he was drinking beer and liked to read the New Yorker. In SA, they just kept it at home.

      The same thing happens in Iran. Lots of women were designer clothing including skimpy clothing underneath the religious garb. Partying tends to happen at home.


        • I am not so sure, it feels fairly common. Everyone has some kind of different persona. People have their work personalities and their off-work personalities (also supposed to be psychologically hard).

          Our religious hardliners seem to have public and private issues as well. How many evagelists get caught watching porn, having affairs, cruising for gay escorts, drinking and having drugs? Ultra-Orthodox Jews are known to cart out a TV when the kids are asleep and watch all the secular shows.


      • I concur RE Iran. I dated a woman “fresh off the boat” and she was pretty damn secular. She ate non halal meat, drank alcohol, etc. She did have some “traditional” ideas/restrictions on sex though. I can understand that especially given her comment that “if they find out I had sex outside of marriage, my parents will kill me”. Kinda puts a damper on the ardor.


        • Back in the 90s, I worked for a Persian guy who had a lot of connections into the Iranian expat community in Southern California. I’m trying, and failing, to think of a single person I met due to that association that didn’t give off a “secular” vibe. Most of them weren’t first-generation, but still – that entire community assimilated damn easily.


      • Ironically, noted conservatives P.J. O’Rourke and Jeremy Clarkson have also both specifically mentioned this (and, because of who they were, been hooted down).

        Hell, it’s not even incongruous – it’s explicit (heh, explicit) that modest clothing on women in public is specifically and only so that (positive) they are seen as people, and not sex symbols by men, (negative) that they don’t tempt men they are not attached to into an occasion of sin. Nothing is said about what you wear when only your partner can see you.


    • Also modern liberals are a lot more respectful to Islam as an orthodox religion. I suspect 19th century liberals were more encouraging of modernizing the old parts of Judaism that they found weird.

      Now you have Buzzfeed making listicles about what its like to be Muslim during Ramadan in the West in the cheery buzzfeed internet lingo way.


    • Secular Islam was often pushed and shoved on people by various dictators which sort of poisoned its appeal to many. The Shah was very pro western but his harsh tendencies paved the road for his opposition to be reactionary and oppose all he stood for.


      • Yeah, I remember reading The 9 Parts of Desire, and the author spoke to many women who were going from secular Islam to religious Islam in part due to a backlash against the feeling that western culture was being pushed upon them and doing things such as taking the veil was seen as asserting their own culture.


    • It helped that the Wahhabis were able to team up with the Saudi Royal Family after the[y] struck it rich with oil

      The alliance between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi movements dates back to 1744, although the religious element in the second Saudi state, the Emirate of Nejd, was rather a lot weaker than in either the first or the present state, and, arguably at least, not particularly unusual for the Arabian peninsula during that period.

      But yeah, the extra petrodollars have certainly helped export Wahhabism off the peninsula. According to a not necessarily objective Shia acquaintance of mine, the biggest “lay” wheel in my local liberal Shia mosque/Islamic center, the Saudis in specific (e.g. versus Qataris) are basically buying control of the primary Sunni mosque/center in the same area.


  3. Yeah we never really dwell on how, in the Protestant schism it was the Catholics who were being schismed from who were the liberals. The Calvanists, the Protestant Pilgrims, the Lutherans, they were the strict harsh sects horrified by things like indulgences and dancing (and also corruption and the like).

    I would agree that the renaissance, enlightenment etc aren’t necessary for modernity in Islam but with a caveat. An Islamic enlightenment isn’t necessary because there’s already been a Christian one. So they’re importing a foreign enlightenment with their foreign modernity. I agree with most commentators who say that Islam itself will probably need an enlightenment of its own in order to cope with modernity. That said I would put my bets on modernity over Islam in the long run. For all the little spats of terrorism the fact remains that it is Islam that is fighting and flailing on its own home turf against modernity, not the other way around. The fulminations of immigration conservatives notwithstanding modern societies have not been sliding back into fundamental religiousness.


    • In a history of Iceland I own, it pointed out that the Reformation increased the application of the death penalty. The Catholic Church was fine with some prayers and some money to atone for sins. The Protestsnts were not.


    • Yeah, when there was tension between the princes and the peasants, the Catholic Church took the side of the peasants from time to time. Something something Jesus something.

      When the princes and the peasants had tensions and the princes asked Luther about it, Luther’s famous quote was “Frogs Must Have Storks.”

      As for Modernity, I suspect that Islam had the choice between forging its own Modernity or importing the Modernity of others.

      By exporting its antithesis, it chose the Modernity of others.


    • I’m not exactly an expert on the religious, but for a while it’s been in the back of my mind that Islam also needs part of Protestantism to survive long-term – namely to back off on the authority (and therefore the authoritarianism) of clerics to at least the point the modern Catholic Church has, if not to go whole hog and let everyone interpret for themselves. There’s an inflexibility as it is now that allows the religion to by hijacked for temporal political purposes, particularly since the two authorities are so intertwined in practice in so many places.


      • I think that part of what is getting in the way is the fact that Arab Muslims still read their holy book in the original language (which is somewhat close to the same language they use in their day to day lives). (I got into that here, as well.)

        Protestantism can say “well, you have to understand, if you read this in the original Greek, you’ll see that it says…” and next thing you know, you have a lot of squishy room to move around.

        Not so for Arabic-Speaking Muslims.


  4. Idlewords describes this as “Judaism and Islam have problems at high latitude due to an unhealthy preoccupation with sunsets. Christianity works right out of the box.”


  5. In my former company we had a one week due diligence trip in Cairo in the middle of Ramadan. It was about 20 of us, and being a sensitive multicultural company, we knew about Ramadan going on.

    The process was we would all 20 come to a conference room in a big hotel (paid by the counterparty), and the counterparty upper management would be there together with the middle management that corresponded to the subject of teh day (Tax and Accounting, Legal, technical, etc.)

    When we walk into the room the first day there is a massive table with tons of sweets, pastries, juice, coffee, tea, soft drinks. Enough for all twenty of us to gorge. As befits traditional Islamic hospitality

    We excused ourselves out of the room, gathered together and discussed: what would be less rude: ignoring the food they were offering us, or eating and drinking in front of hungry, thirsty people? We opted for completely ignoring the food.

    At noon, we excused ourselves, went to the hotel restaurant (all the windows and doors were covered so people walking past it could not see who was inside).

    When we returned for the afternoon session, all the untouched food had been taken away, and replaced with a completely new display of afternoon snacks, more drinks, more food. Which we absolutely ignored.

    This went on for a week. They spent enormous amounts of money paying for food that we never even acknowledged, as if it wasn’t there. We only thanked them for the hospitality in general (we honestly expected that after the second day they would reduce the display to a minimum, to keep the symbolism that they were offering food and drinks while minimizing the waste)

    To this day, even though I was one of the most vocal supporters of “ignore the food”, I’m not sure if we handled it as well as we could, but I could not have been able to look at the hungry person answering our questions while I was stuffing a cream eclair in my mouth. At the same time, the idea of telling them to stop bringing food felt terribly patronizing. Letting the food be the elephant in the room was the solution we opted for.


    • If my experiences are any guide, your hosts were more confused than anything else. Of course, you recognized the hospitality they were offering. You are westerners, so of course you need not fast. We want you to enjoy your time here and feel comfortable as our guests! Why don’t you eat? Maybe we need to offer you more and better food next time.

      Had you been visitors from another mostly Muslim part of the world, they’d have held out on offering the food until after nightfall so you could have a nice iftar. But you were from the west, so by all means, eat now, and hey, it’s Ramadan, so have a nice iftar also!

      Just a guess.


      • Believe it or not, we felt that to tell them that we would not eat would be also offensive, as if we didn’t like their food or something (like Burt says, as if we were expecting BETTER food).

        We were very uncomfortable with the whole thing, and we didn’t felt there was any way not to cause offense. We though this was the least rude we could be. By the way, there was a (very secular) Pakistani in our group. He agreed with the Don’t Eat, Don’t Tell, policy


    • As someone who was raised in a fiercely hospitality-oriented culture myself (a secular one), I feel for you. I also think that not eating the food AT ALL was a terrible choice. (So terrible that I bring it up instead of not butting in – only in case it comes up again, though, because I’ve found that my hospitality culture assumptions are the same as those of other people I know, cross-culturally, not EXACTLY, but pretty close. Including those of my Iranian uncle.)

      In my culture, if the host feels that you are in a situation where they should offer food, and then you refuse to eat/drink anything (not even a cup of tea!), under any circumstances, the host is pretty much constrained to keep offering. And keep offering MORE and BETTER. Because the ONLY reason (short of your own religious reasons) to not eat SOMETHING is if they are failing to be good hosts and you are (as, in said culture, you should be) too polite to point out their failings.

      As soon as you agree to eat SOMETHING, anything at all – or even drink a cup of tea – the host can breathe easy and move on. And it really *doesn’t matter* what you want, or what the host wants, or what else is going on… hospitality not being given and received is… like wearing shoes in the house (oh wait, you all do that too, and that would actually be less bad) … it’s like… I can’t even conceive of what it’s like. Stepping on an American flag in front of people who revere it, maybe? Hm.

      I think you should’ve symbolically each eaten something small on the first day, had a cup of tea, exclaimed at length about how delicious it was (yes, even though they were hungry and thirsty), and said, “We so appreciate the care and respect you have for us, in providing this amazing food. It’s absolutely delicious. But we also have care and respect for your culture, and your fast. Would it be possible for us to put this food aside for later, so that we can enjoy it in a more respectful way? And perhaps instead of these splendid lavish feasts that we can’t possibly be so rude as to eat in front of you, we could arrange to spend an iftar with some of you?” Or something like that. (I would expect them to insist it was fine, and you to insist that you appreciated that, but you REALLY couldn’t possibly be so rude, until one or the other of you gave up… but that’s part of the hospitality-culture general script.)

      I think don’t ask don’t tell is a rarely a good cultural answer when you don’t know what to do, especially when it possibly leads to greater offense. Playing the ignorant foreigner is awkward, and you have to be careful not to be the DOMINEERING ignorant foreigner, but it’s more honest, and more effective.


    • So you were in a due-diligence trip–a possibly sensitive situation, if you found something that wasn’t quite right or looked a little shady–and they did something that made you feel incredibly guilty and obligated?

      I’d say the food was worth the price. Besides, after you all went home and the sun set, they chowed down.


  6. Well, that commercial for internet service is a fine example of the art of the very short-form motion picture to transmit an emotion — in this case, a heartwarming vignette. Aren’t you proud of Aisha and her grandmother? I am. Commercials are very good for that and I think they must be one of the most demanding forms of storytelling imaginable. So, well done, anonymous directors from some Qatari advertising agency.


    • Yeah, there are entire essays that could be written about that commercial (which I *LOVE*).

      First off:
      It’s obviously a Ramadan commercial but it makes the iftar the centerpiece of why you know it’s Ramadan. The importance of making a good meal and they only have a half hour and they haven’t even started dessert!

      Grrl Power: the youngest wants to help her sisters and they completely underestimate her. HA! IN YOUR FACE, SISTERS! I HAD THE POWER OF GRAMMA BEHIND ME!

      The fact that the kiddo who showed everybody up was named “Aisha” is one of those things that might be lost on most Americans but is about as obvious a reference as a Christmas commercial that has, as its centerpiece, a very, very pregnant young woman named “Mary” going about her business.

      It’s a very, very secular commercial. It’s a very, very religious commercial.


        • Nope, not as far as I can tell.

          From the Wiki:

          An Islamic year will be entirely within a Gregorian year of the same number in the year 20874, after which year the number of the Islamic year will always be greater than the number of the concurrent civil year. The Islamic calendar year of 1429 occurred entirely within the civil calendar year of 2008. Such years occur once every 33 or 34 Islamic years (32 or 33 civil years).


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