I have just returned from a week abroad in Doha, Qatar, hereby concluding a three-year Middle Eastern Studies teacher fellowship with fifteen other American educators.
When our QFI Teacher Leadership Program kicked off in Austin, Texas in January 2020, intimidated by a room of highly educated, confident, and well-traveled high school AP History teachers, I became mute, sweating over a geography pop quiz and surrounded with vocabulary I had never heard before. As a middle school art teacher I was surely in over my head and questioned if this highly academic program was a good idea. There was a yearning to learn about a region I knew little about, but apparently I had missed the study guide!
Countless Zoom lectures and subsequent in-person workshops:
Doha, a magical and modern city, had managed to both embrace what contemporary society expected and hoped for in the 21st century, while also honoring their nomadic - Bedouin - roots. Rich woven textiles, simple stoneware, and mesmerizing geometric patterns sat comfortably alongside slick, modern architecture and bold LED lighting. After learning of Qatar's arduous history of pearl diving, and the fight to rebuild after that industry's collapse, the glittering contemporary buildings did not feel gaudy or pretentious, but instead a shining success story with sincere gratitude to generations of sacrifice and emirs that guided the journey. Our animated guides at Education City Mosque, Qatar National Library, Embrace Doha, and Tariq Bin Ziad School beamed, and the pride in their resilient little country was contagious.
We dined and shopped in souqs -outdoor street markets- where goods ranged from spices, candies, live animals (!), and handmade artifacts, to tacky Made-in-China souvenirs. We visited the thriving indoor Villaggio Mall, bustling with recognizable American brands (Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works) and an indoor ice rink and gondola rides to cool down when the summer heat proves to be unbearable.
We explored the natural beauty of the region: a jolting ride over desert dunes, a serene sunset amidst a sea of mangroves, and a salty swim in the Persian Gulf. I will forever remember the surprisingly cool and soft desert sand and the mushy sea floor that insisted to keep treading water lest my feet be swallowed whole.
Always searching for art and design to share with students and inspire my own personal practice, I was enamored with the vibrant and playful 2022 FIFA World Cup billboards, the many modern football-themed sculptures, a public art explosion at the Hamad International Airport, and finding a mural commissioned by Chicago artist Max Sansing! A visit to the Museum of Islamic Art taught me how to properly apply gold leaf, and I swooned over a glimmering plate (equaling a week's salary!) that will one day be mine.
Flash back to our first night, surrounded by a sea of white thobes and black abayas but in a bright red top myself, I remember hesitating self-consciously. What had I gotten myself into? Even with all of our preparations, I hadn't known what to expect of an Islamic monarchy. But fear is not my guide. After confirming with the hotel concierge that color was indeed allowed in the country (yes, I asked) and our excursions expanded, I came to feel more comfortable. This tiny country, nearly the same size as Connecticut with only 300,000 actual Qatari citizens, was used to expats. An international home to nearly 3 million, this proved to be the safest and most respected I have felt in all of my travels. For every wary sentiment I fielded about this trip, I could easily counter with a comparable local or national example from America.
Less ashamed by my own ignorance, I am resolved to carry on learning. The Middle East, like America, is a vast and nuanced place, and I hope to explore more of the region. The more I travel, the easier it is to see parallels across different cultures and countries. The deep relationships built with new friends grows my faith in humanity. This not only makes me a better teacher, but a more empathetic and responsible citizen of the world. I hope by sharing this experience it inspires others to consider what (or whom) they do not know and be open to learn. It will take all of us together to care for each other and this planet.
Let curiosity lead you, dear reader, and courage move within you.
- Occasional Writer.
Blog: 2023 Sculpture Fellowship in Italy
Blog: 2019 NEA Global Learning Fellowship in South Africa
Blog: 2018 eTextiles Fellowship in Berlin
Blog: 2011 Animation Fellowship at Parsons
by Lindsay A. Johnson
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