"Fadhel can help you," my new colleague told me. Fadhel, a soft-spoken, Western-dressing Bahraini, worked for the chief operating officer. I went to see him and told him I needed to buy a car. "What kind do you want?" he asked. "A Nissan Pathfinder," I said, my decision based on the fact that the Nissan dealership was down the street from my apartment building. He made a quick phone call and spoke in Arabic to the person on the other end of the line. "Go and see Wissam after work," he told me.
Wissam was a young Syrian guy who spoke good English. Like me, he was new to Doha, the capital of Qatar, a small country on the Western side of the Arabian Gulf. Wissam had a 2005 Pathfinder in stock and told me to come back the following evening to do the paperwork and pick up the car.
I returned the next evening and sat down with Wissam and an Indian guy who had come from one of the local banks with the loan paperwork. The Indian gave me a bunch of papers to sign that were written in Arabic. I couldn't read them and looked at him questioningly. He just shrugged. I signed them anyway. Wissam tossed me the keys and I drove the Pathfinder out of the dealership, still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I, an American, had just bought a Japanese car from a Syrian salesman who worked for a Qatari-owned dealership, with a loan financed by a English bank represented by an Indian loan officer.
That was almost five years ago. The car loan is now paid off and I, much to my surprise, am still living in Doha.
I like to blame Gettysburg College for my nomadic proclivities. Soon after declaring Spanish as a second major at the beginning of my sophomore year, the Spanish faculty launched a vociferous, well-orchestrated campaign to get me to study abroad in Spain. Not many students studied abroad in the mid-1980s, and I was reluctant to leave friends and break ties to the campus. "I'll miss too much, I protested." They kept up the pressure. "I'll go for a semester," I finally told my adviser, Prof. Ron Burgess. "Go for a year," he told me." "Go for a year," Prof. Paula Olinger echoed. "Go for a year," Prof. Kerr Thompson re-echoed.
I went for a year. The experience was in every way what a study abroad experience should be — transformational. I fell in love with Spain and Europe, and I gained a seemingly insatiable desire to see and experience the world around me, along with an unshakable confidence that I could live pretty much anywhere.
We Americans like to think of the United States as diverse, but the Gulf region turns the concepts of nationality and ethnicity on their collective heads. I've met a person who is half- Egyptian and half-Brazilian and another who is half-Jordanian and half-Icelandic. I know a couple here who met in the United States as university students. She is Uruguayan and he is Swedish. Here in the topsy-turvy melting pot that is the Gulf, she teaches English and he teaches Spanish. Another couple I know is Romanian (he) and Cuban (she); they met in Doha and recently married. "If you have any kids, here what nationality will they be?" a colleague asked the Romanian. "I haven't really thought about that yet," he responded. Has anyone, I wondered?
Not too long ago I went with some friends on a dhow cruise on Doha Bay. We hung out on the upper deck, where we laughed and talked and ate the food we had grilled on board. As the sun set, back in a corner, a young Israeli guy was chatting up a Jordanian girl. The Lebanese d.j. turned up the music and the crowd of Canadians, Belgians, Americans, Brits, French, Lebanese, Indians, and even a few Qataris shouted the lyrics to Yves LaRock's "Rise Up":
No falling down again
I try to fly so high
My dream is to fly
Over the rainbow
My dream is to fly
We'll meet again
Out there in the darkness, the scene didn't seem real. It was, I thought, a glimpse of what the world could be, or should be, or, maybe, someday, would be. I watched the dancing, took a swig of my Heineken, and sang the lyrics with the crowd. I was in no hurry to get back to shore.
Brian Zerbe works as the director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Posted: Thu, 16 Apr 2009
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