My name is Chandi and I recently returned to the U.S. after living in Qatar for the past three years. I am a college history instructor and my love for history developed during my first budget backpacking 6-month trip through Europe when I was 19. What interests me most about travel is that it provides ways to make the world more peaceful and tolerant. Travel offers this when it’s done in an in-depth way, when open-minded conversations are undertaken with people who have different beliefs, when comfort zones are abandoned, when judgement is suspended, and cross cultural knowledge is sought. These ideas crystallized for me on that first aforementioned trip, and continued to be my way markers for my travels and expat experiences through the following decades.
How does photography influence the way you travel and see the world around you?
My mother and grandmother encouraged me to paint and draw a lot when I was young and I took tons of fine arts classes at the local community college when I was still in high school. I developed a keen eye for aesthetics, for colors, and for composition, and I began to “see photographs” in the world around me. I love travel photography and the art of “seeing” photographs when I move slowly and observantly through streets, and over landscapes. I have never learned the technical aspects of how a camera works, (which I’d like to learn so that I can take “fancier” pictures) but what will always delight me the most is the art of “seeing” photos in the world around me.
While in Qatar, you worked as a history teacher at a college. What was that experience like?
It was fascinating. I had lived in a few other countries such as India, Italy and Switzerland and had traveled extensively through Europe and Asia in earlier years, but living in Qatar as a single, independent woman from California, was certainly the most unusual of my international experiences. My students were all Qatari. There was a men’s campus and a woman’s campus and the drive between the two often took me an hour because of horrendous traffic. Negotiating those roads was so stressful that I would arrive in the classroom in what might have been most frazzled condition of any teacher on the planet!
How did your experience as a teacher impact your ability to connect with the local culture? Would you say it was relatively easy to integrate yourself into the community?
I am so thankful that my job allowed me to interact with locals, and not just any locals but with the up-and-coming generation of Qataris who are finding themselves in a totally different world than that of their parents. In the past twenty years, since my students were young children, Qatar has become a modern country. My students have one foot in the traditional world of their parents and grandparents and one foot in the modern world with their iPhone's and their exposure via the internet and movies to other beliefs and ways of life around the world. The modern world and its accouterments beckon to them while their parents tend to be wary of modernity. Young Qataris are challenged to negotiate these two worlds in ways their parents never were. The stories I heard were so interesting that I began to conduct interviews, and I plan to turn these into a book.
My opportunity seems to be a rare one for expats in Qatar. The vast majority of expats I met there had almost no interaction with locals. I met expats who’d been there ten years and said they had not gotten to know a single local. The locals do tend to keep to themselves, and their culture is very different from that of the western expats so I understand that it’s not easy. I was lucky to have a job that gave me a chance to get to know a fascinating group of young Qataris. But it was up to me to create a certain trust with them in order to receive from them the depth of sharing that I did.
What are some lessons/stories you learned from your students about the region and culture you would not have otherwise had insight to, given your close interaction with them?
I learned so much more about the Arab world than I ever anticipated I would. It’s hard to know where to begin but a few things were:
-All the Qataris I spoke with do not agree with ISIS and they want the west to understand the difference between a fake and a true Muslim. They are afraid of what’s happening in the Middle East and they see that the U.S. created a vacuum where extreme groups developed.
-Invariably a lot of conversations I had with them about their culture led to them parsing out for me which rules are “just cultural” and are not tenets of their religion. For example, marriages are arranged. The more liberal families allow the betrothed to see each other first, and have come choice. Among Bedouin tribes they don’t allow the couple to view each other (and have a choice to agree to the marriage or not.) Instead, they have to sign the marriage papers before they’ve seen each other.
-I learned that their religion dictates that they SHOULD be able to view each other first, and that non-viewing is a cultural thing that developed separately.
-Many of my students expressed a desire to tell their parents that they do not want their marriage arranged. But this idea is in its infancy. I believe by the next generation it will be more acceptable for young Qataris to have more choice in who their spouse will be.
-Women in Qatar are embracing the opportunity given to them to be educated, (there were 800 female students at the college compared to barely 300 male students.) Many are getting jobs and they’re allowed to drive. Whether or not a woman is allowed to drive has nothing to do with Islam—it’s a cultural idea.
What would you like people to know about this little-known country?
One thing I wish was more clear to some Americans is that you cannot paint the whole Middle East with one brush. When I returned home from my years in Qatar, so many people said to me, "Thank goodness you are home where it's safe. It is so dangerous over there." On the news they're seeing only the problematic parts of the Middle East. I tell them that Qatar is safer than the U.S. Qatar doesn't even have a single gun store. Getting a license to own a gun in Qatar is extremely difficult and the vast majority of citizens do not own them. Once in a while a dramatic crime occurs but over all there is very little crime. However there are things a westerner can get into trouble for there that he or she would not, in the U.S. The rules there are different and it's important to understand them before you go.
Another comment I receive sometimes from Americans is that "the people over there live in caves, I saw it on TV." There isn't a large percent of people who live in caves in the Middle East and certainly in Qatar this is not the case. The government of Qatar provides land for every Qatari family to build a home. Not only do they have large homes but they have maids, cooks, gardeners, drivers and very high-end cars. It would be nice if more Americans could travel to the peaceful areas of the Middle East and get a better sense of the diversity of the region and get some of their stereotypes broken down.
What was your favorite approach to photography while in Qatar? Did you generally strike up a conversation with your subjects or just candidly capture the moment?
One crucial thing I learned right away was that it is not OK to photograph local women, at least not in a way that shows their face clearly. I was able to get some shots of them from a distance, usually of their backs. I had to limit any portrait style photography to the men only. With the men I sometimes struck up a conversation but often it was a candid capture. Since it wasn’t acceptable to take pictures of the women, I didn’t even attempt to strike up a conversation with the intention of it leading to a photo. I accepted that it wasn’t appropriate and didn’t try to circumvent that.
What recommendations can you share for future travelers also interested in exploring the region?
The locals love their malls. More malls are always being built. But for a traveler, malls cannot hold interest for long—after all you can go to malls in most cities around the world. What I think is more interesting is to get out on the Persian Gulf in the form of paddle boarding, sailing, jet skiing or just taking a swim at one of the beaches, which provides more attractive vistas for viewing the city than being in the city itself. I also recommend visiting the cultural centers. To learn more about how to do these things, check out my detailed insider guide Doha Surf and Turf.
What’s next for you? Do you have any final words of advice?
I’m working on turning my interviews with Qataris into a book, and of course to keep traveling and writing and photographing. I have recently started sharing my travel articles on the Huffington Post, and am completing a manuscript about my long-distance walk in Italy which will be published in 2017. My advice is get a passport if you don’t have one, pick what feels like the most unusual countries to you, and travel to them with an intention to set aside preconceived notions. Aim to meet locals, to suspend judgement and keep your mind open. Strive to be constantly curious and always learning.
To keep up with Chandi and travels, be sure to visit her at Paradise of Exiles.
Images Courtesy of Chandi Wyant
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