Thursday, March 12, 2009


Still trying to record stories. This needs recording so that I can move on. It also needs revising, but here’s the first draft. Comments welcome.

After 6 days of steady engagement and constant interaction I took the second day of the conference off to write and walk and photograph. In dark jeans, converse all stars, and a dark long sleeved shirt I set out from the hotel with my black Leica to explore. The area around the hotel is a mix of commercial establishments with residential neighborhood. I saw no other women the times I wandered around the alleys across from the hotel. Closer to the souq just a few blocks away I would see local women in abayas and tourists in western dress, but in the area surrounding the hotel it would be very unusual see women among the service and construction workers, laborers and shop owners and employees primarily from the Indian subcontinent (India, Bangledesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal). Men in Qatar as guest workers aren’t allowed to bring female family members with them. My presence may have been conspicuous. I wasn’t conscious of it.

I headed left outside the hotel, away from the souq. I recorded a lot of stray cats, some eating off dishes beside rows of shoes lined up just inside doorways, others scrounging through trash piles or napping in the dust. I peeked into dark hallways to see bikes resting against the wall, towels and varying lengths of cloths hanging up to dry. At one doorway I heard what sounded very much like a nail gun and air compressor. Afraid of getting lost inside the maze of narrow streets I headed back out to the main road, stopping to photograph a pile of generators outside a storefront. I walked in a little closer to record the men standing around outside the shop. I continued down the road past an upholstery shop. I stepped inside and gestured to take a photograph. The man behind the counter gestured back in what I took as an invitation. (On my previous visit to Doha I had photographed the construction sites near VCUQ campus and after taking a photograph close enough to be a portrait, I would then show the recorded image in the preview mode of my digital camera. Often, others nearby would come over to see the tiny image and ask to be photographed. The men would smile or laugh and return to work, or their break.) Another man in the shop motioned for me to photograph him as well. I said what I thought was “thank you” and “goodbye” in Arabic (the few words I tried to learn) and continued on.

I grew bolder as I continued. In the next shop several men sat behind sewing machines. One man, who I guessed to be the owner stood talking with a younger employee cutting strips of red fabric with scissors. I walked in and asked to photograph. The owner spoke to me in English, invited me in, asked where I was from then offered me a cup of tea. I hesitated then accepted his offer, afraid of insulting him --- and also curious. (My hotel reception desk welcomed quests with a complementary bowl of dates and sweet Arabic coffee with cardamom.) He handed a bill to an employee and sent him off with instructions in a language I couldn’t understand. As I photographed one worker behind a Singer sewing machine, I remarked that I had a Singer as well and glanced at the unlabeled machine next to it. The shop owner claimed that machine could sew through rugs and pulled out a piece of leather and demonstrated by stitching together two then four layers. I commented to my host that his English was very good. He disagreed then listed for me the many languages he spoke: English, Arabic, Banglali (explaining he was from Bangledesh), Urdu, and Farsi. He then pointed to each employee and introduced where he was from and what languages he knew. Each spoke at least two and most spoke three or more languages.

I enter into someone else’s space and take a photograph, always aware of an ethical conflict. Especially when I’m in a foreign culture and don’t speak the language. Am I recording for others— or myself—that I was here --- displaying some place or some one very different and exotic? Does it make my experience, and me, remarkable? Is it a way of distancing or connecting? I know this is part of a much larger dilemma of the ethnographic gaze, but on a personal level I am aware of the boldness I assume using my camera as a way to explore and cross barriers.

The tea was sweet, milky and spicy. Grateful for the generosity of their time and friendship, I wanted to give something of myself back and was suddenly inspired to run back to my hotel, get my fiddle and play a tune. I asked if that would be okay, it seemed so and I left promising to return shortly. As I was returning with my fiddle on my back, a woman — obviously a westerner — with grey hair and white slacks approached in my direction. We stopped, greeted each other. Immediately recognizing each other as American. She asked what I was up to with my fiddle and when I told her she looked dismayed and maybe a little shocked. She warned me that I would be committing a “cultural violation”. As “a woman in their shop”, “a woman in pants”, and “a woman paying them so much attention”. She claimed they would be “terribly uncomfortable”. My heart sunk and then I was embarrassed by my naivety. But I wasn’t completely convinced she was right. I was weighing something my friend Halim, originally from Lebanon living in Doha, remarked during my previous visit: that Americans are so afraid of connecting—afraid even to make eye contact— that they treat the locals rudely. I tried to get more information. Was she a trustworthy source? She told me she lived in a gated community with her husband who was “in construction”, and that she had low regard for Doha (a “cow town”, compared with Kuwait where she had lived previously.) I wasn’t sure if she really was an authority on cultural violations or whether she was expressing her own discomfort. The more I spoke with her, the less I was willing to accept her assessment. I declined her offer to join her for a cup of tea and decided to return to the shop as I had promised, feeling the pull to do doing something I had said I was going to do.

I returned to play a tune then offered the fiddle to both the shop owner and the younger man cutting strips of fabric, who I had learned was his son. The son helped his father hold the fiddle correctly under his chin. I left shortly after both had a chance to make some sounds with the violin and bow. I was unsure whether I had done something deeply inappropriate, whether I had gone too far.

I’ve told this story to several friends, including Halim who I met later in the week for lunch, and friends who live there now or have in the past when there was even less traffic from westerners. None seemed to think that what I did was odd or inappropriate. This story is less about my photographing and more about the barriers we cross to engage, connect, and take risks. My son asks me why I speak to strangers even in Richmond. I tell him that we share the same space, and that makes them a friend. Not a friend like the next door neighbor whose comings and goings we are intimately familiar with. But some one who shares our life – our space and place in time. Halim thinks I should bring this back home and take on a project he called, “A Tourist in My Own Town.”

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Doha/Mousharaka Charette: Day 2

Picking up where I left on with the post from a few days back: Reflections From The Gondola. On the second day of the charette Barbara, Frank and I met briefly at lunch to sketch out a plan for the afternoon. They had generously encouraged me to take a primary role in the conception and planning. I learned later that this wasn’t true for the other groups. Most of the other workshops were clearly led by the invited speaker, with the VCU faculty more as support than collaborators. With only three hours to finish what we began the previous day at mall, we drafted a loose plan to somehow compile whatever documentation the students brought in: written notes, drawings, photographs. Barbara said she was interested in what patterns might emerge. My interest was in identifying where impressions and interpretations converged, and where they diverged. (A simple framework I learned from Sharon Poggenpohl in grad school two decades ago, although I can’t remember the context or application.)

On the bus ride out to the mall, I had suggested to the students that they begin by jotting down notes about their expectations. I thought this would be necessary for building a frame of reference: to evaluate their impressions, to make a critical assessment. I thought it would provide some direction for drawing conclusions about the experience, and for finding meaning in the place, something we had discussed the previous day in the briefing. This is something I bring from doing documentary work in preparation for fieldwork: carefully addressing assumptions and expectations as a way to be conscious of my reactions and to distinguish preconceptions from fresh perceptions. I thought about this as I began to examine my own responses to the experience: if I went into the place believing I would hate it, would I be able to stay open to what I was experiencing in the moment? If I was able to recognize that this was less a fixed reality and more an expectation or assumption, would that allow me to be open-minded? Hard work, being open minded in a mall.

I digress.
I suggested to Barbara that to begin the session we would ask the students to bring their chairs out from behind the tables, and form a circle. She replied that she often did this as well but always felt a little silly, like something children are asked to do kindergarten. I laughed and agreed. But now as I write this I’m wondering what’s so silly about that? Maybe what’s silly is that we feel adults no longer should be asked to listen and engage fully and personally with the group, and that building a sense of community in the classroom is not among a facilitator/teacher’s highest priorities.

I’m eager to hear Barbara’s impression but I felt this circle time the most successful aspect of the workshop, with students’ radically different experiences (from Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Brazil, and the U.S.) sharing their impressions of a place.

I began taking notes on a white board with the heading S L O W K N O W L E D G E, a primary issue in the presentation Barbara and Frank gave earlier in the day. One student talked about safety, how he felt “safe” from the elements —the harsh Qatar climate (sand storms, for example and the very reason we switched our plans from the outside souq to the mall). Another student responded by saying that rather than feeling safe he experienced confusion. I commented on this “divergence of experience”. Others agreed and gave concrete examples: the acoustics in the food court made it hard to discriminate voices and other sounds. Another student agreed and described the sounds as contradictions. Others nodded their heads. I listed the terms “reverberation” and “distraction”. Someone described it as “sound absorption“. Another student described feeling “irritated” by the lack of silence. I asked if silence was desirable. She nodded. I remarked how some find silence frightening.

Someone mentioned the term “artificiality” and when I asked if this was a positive or negative quality, the answers were mixed. Some equated this with the safety of a controlled environment, others saw this as undesirable. One of the Qatari women had told me the day before that she went to the mall every day. When I asked her how this visit was different, she very articulately reported how she was able to “concentrate” and “focus”. Where she would normally be thinking about purchases, and looking at the mall as a consumer, she transformed into a designer: observing colors and patterns.

The next step was to try to assemble materials on a 60” x 76” (or close to that) canvas consisting of four sheets of white paper taped together. Somehow the process broke down at this point. At this point, it became less of a collaboration and more of a separation of ideas. It was decided that each student or group of students would assemble their images; these would be photographed separately, compiled on one digital file ( in In Design) and then printed out on one surface. The final result looked polished, but I find it disappointing that the designers (Barbara and Frank, and Don and I) took over the charette, working well into the night to complete the digital files while the students were welcome to take off early.

Charettes are fast and intense. It is ironic to try to convey something about slow knowledge—about wisdom and knowledge and observations accumulated over a long period time—through a charette. I’m not sure if we were able to succeed with our intention, but I’m hoping we can do this again. I’m hoping Barbara and I, or I, or Barbara can continue this work. Maybe the work is for us to build up knowledge about this process. Or for there to be a follow up. Or for someone else to take on this project and report back to us and for there to be an accumulation of experiences.

quick update/notes

Didn't have time/space to write last night. Completed the charette, concluded conference, trip to the I.M. Pei Islamic Art Museum (even more extraordinary than you thought). Back to the hotel. Needed time/space to let it disperse, filter, sink in. All of that. I have copious notes and promise to write later about the conclusion of charette. What I thought worked. What didn't.

Took the day off to write, think, explore. Wash off the air from the Villagio with local Doha dust. I'll take a shower shortly.

Notes about today to be written up later.
- images of stuff, junk, dust, upholstery shops, air compressors + generators jumbled outside the generator shop.
- a cup of tea with an upholsterer
- an encounter with an American ex-pat
- the falcon souq

Will write later.