Most of us remember being the new person in town—wide-eyed with culture shock and bleary-eyed from jetlag. We remember all too well the loneliness and the overwhelm one feels in the hours, days, and weeks after landing. There is so much to say to the newcomer, yet it is hard to find the right words to say it. To anyone who has ever felt lost or alone in a new country, Emma Morrell dedicates this open letter to Doha’s newest arrivals and her once newly-arrived self.
What did you think when you first got here? Did you arrive in early spring, before the scorching summer heat really kicked in, before you had seen the air wobble in front of you, and you wondered what all the fuss was about? Was it in the middle of one of the recent dust storms that meant you couldn’t see West Bay from the aeroplane window as you taxied to the gate at Hamad International?
Had you been here before, or did you take this assignment, sight unseen, a leap of faith from where you were before?
We Were All You Once
Some of us arrived just a few months ago in the new Doha that glitters with glass skyscrapers and shallow aquamarine waters around The Pearl. Some of us came 20 years ago and can still remember when the pyramid of the Sheraton was the only recognisable landmark in the city. Whether we’re lifers in Doha or we’re completely baffled as to why a junction with traffic lights is referred to as the “TV Roundabout”, almost all of us can remember feeling how you feel as if it were yesterday.
Everyone Has a Story
Maybe you’re here for your job and nervous about doing business in the Middle East, and you really don’t want to say or do the wrong thing. Maybe you’ve arrived with a brand-new baby, and you’re worried about how to find nappies and paediatricians and new mummy friends. Maybe your kids are starting school, and you’ve heard the stories about all the good ones being impossible to get into. Or, perhaps you’ve got high-schoolers, and you’re wondering how to navigate those teen years in a country where cultural and social norms are so different to yours. You might even be an empty nester, and you haven’t the first idea how you’re going to meet people now the link to a school community is gone.
Are you thrilled about a new adventure and excited to get stuck into a new country and a new culture? Or are you silently terrified because you didn’t want to move here in the first place? Were you put in touch with friends of friends before you came? Or have you arrived here without knowing a single soul?
You might have come in from Europe, the States, or Australia, where you can get almost anything you want when you want. Those places have very different rules about dress codes and what you can consume where. You might have come in from a neighbouring GCC country and wondered how Doha compares to Dubai or Muscat, Riyadh or Manama. Where you lived before might have been “easier”, or it might have been “harder” than it is in Doha. The truth is, the hardest place to live is the place where you have just arrived, but it’s also the easiest because, once you’re here, there’s nothing left to do but get on with it.
Doha's Biggest Asset
You might not know this, but Doha’s biggest asset isn’t natural gas, its medical system, or even the upcoming World Cup. The best thing about Doha is the communities that exist between the flashy new highways and dusty back streets. They live in the sprawling compounds and the towering high-rise condominiums, and they exist in schools, networking groups, and online forums. Your new best friends will be people you met on Facebook when you asked a question about playgroups. They will be other parents at the rugby club cheering your kids on from the sidelines. You’ll probably even meet them in the school car park or at the gym you’ve just joined.
It Takes a Village
Far away from everything and everyone you have known, these new best friends will quickly become like family to you, maybe even more so than your own flesh and blood. Can you imagine that? Perhaps not, but then again, you probably couldn’t imagine asking an almost stranger to be your emergency contact at school. And the chances are you’ve just done that too.
You’ll make friends who have been here for a lifetime and can tell you everything from the secret shortcut to school to the best paediatrician in the city. They will take you to glitzy brunches and tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants that no one knows about. They’ll be able to give you tips on the best beaches, perfect playgrounds, and the most awesome activities.
You’ll make friends who are as new as you are to this sandy city, and together you’ll compare notes on accommodation options, school waiting lists, and utility providers. You’ll discuss the comparative differences in costs of living, debate which supermarkets sell your favourite home comforts, and share the sheer shock you’ll feel when you walk outside on a 50°C day.
Adventures to Come
With all of these friends, you will explore this tiny peninsula and everything it has to offer. Together, you’ll set off at weekends to discover abandoned forts and towns, sand dunes that sing as you slide down them, and beaches with warm shallow water so blue you’d think you were on a tropical island. You’ll head to the Inland Sea to camp for the weekend and exchange travel tips on the best places to go while watching the sky set alight in a display of reds and oranges as the blazing sun sinks below the horizon.
On quieter days, you will meet up for playdates in playgrounds or catch-ups on compounds. You’ll make carpooling arrangements for the school run or drop over for a cup of tea and a debate about career options for people who move all the time. When one of you is hospitalised, you’ll look after each other’s children. When your partner travels for work (again), they’ll invite you for dinner. When that dreaded call comes, immediately sending you home frantic and anxious, they’ll rally around to get your kids to school and meals on the table.
A Common Understanding
Your friends here are the only ones who understand this life. They’re the only ones who really get how disorientating it is to arrive in a country you hardly know and start again. They’re the ones who recognise the anxiety of getting places in schools and transporting pets halfway around the world. Your friends at home have no idea about the complexities of getting your biometrics done for your ID card, passing a driving test even though you have a licence at home, or just renewing an Istimara. But these ones do. You might think it’s just you that feels the crushing loneliness of walking into yet another coffee morning or waking up to a day with young kids and no plans, but it’s not.
We understand this life because we live it too.
Dear newcomer, were your worst fears realised, or did this unique country exceed your hopes and dreams? Or has it been, as it has for most of us, a wild and wonderful combination of the two?
Your new friend