At some point early the other morning, I got an e mail from the Wing Safety Officer, Kasey asking me if I’d be interested in going in to town for dinner at an Iranian restaurant. Kasey was scheduled to leave the following day to head home and wanted to train her replacement on the finer points of driving off base. They had a couple extra seats in the truck and invited me along.
I was hesitant at first, to accept the invitation because I really haven’t had much interest in seeing the sights outside the walls of the base; or the confines of my comfort zone, more appropriately. On the other hand, I think everyone I’m over here with has either gone down town already or has plans to go over the next few days. Everyone who has been says it’s definitely worth the trip.
I called my good friend Sac (the rabiephobe) and asked him if he’d like to go along since here was an extra seat. He agreed, and by 1730 we were dressed and ready to go get some Iranian food, yet another issue that I was apprehensive about. I don’t know what Iranians eat, and actually I still don’t since we went to a different restaurant, but I’m getting ahead of myself. At the time I was just hoping Iranian chefs are better at their jobs than Iranian diplomats are at theirs.
Before we even left the base there was a sense of the surreal from the back of our vehicle.
Neither Sac, nor I could stop talking about how it felt like we were getting away with something. I think we had a real case of the institutionalization. We were the prisoners who’d rather stay behind bars than venture out into the real world for fear of the unknown.
As we passed through the final inspection point, we were free of the confines of a life deployed, no more uniforms, concertina wire, HESCO barriers or murses (man purses we wear around our necks to hold our ID cards, keys, money, etc). On the main road out of the base we could see the silhouettes of trees, there was greenery, shrubbery, and Kasey told us there was even grass downtown. I’d believe that when I saw it.
I’ve worn nothing but a uniform for over a month now, and everywhere you look are more uniforms, from all over. Now, I was dressed in civilian clothes, as conservatively as I came prepared to dress. My jeans were a little too short since I didn’t think to try them on before packing back in September. Come to think of it, I don’t know why I even have jeans that are too short for me; too tight or too loose, I could see, but I haven’t grown much taller over the past couple years. I looked more like I was headed out for a clam dig than a night on the town. Even still, it was a strange, yet welcome sensation to be dressed like a regular person. I only wish I had packed a decent pair of casual shoes, because my sneakers made the clamming pants look even sillier.
I don’t know where the expectation came that Doha would be a crummy little, poverty stricken city with dirty streets, panhandlers and pollution. Wherever it came from, it planted roots in my brain and it took a lot of convincing that I was wrong and should check it out for myself. Eventually, I come around to these types of things and I’m usually glad I do about 5 minutes into the venture. By the time we were on the highway, I was already glad I’d accepted the invite. It was just nice to get up to highway speeds in a car, not the 60KPH we’re limited to on base.
What wasn’t nice was feeling the bow wave of the big SUVs passing us on the left. These folks love them some big SUVs over here. I’m guessing there are more places to buy an SUV here than there are places to buy a mobile home in Columbus, MS. I know we passed at least a dozen on the way into town.
We also passed by what is known as Cholesterol Corner, a district where one can find just about any fast food restaurant one could desire. There were a few Starbucks, some golden arches, Popeye’s, Burger King, Chili’s, Crapplebee’s, TGI Friday’s, Dunkin Donuts; you name it, it’s over here. The western influence on Doha was obvious, but it wasn’t at the cost of their own culture and heritage.
While we didn’t get to see a lot of the downtown area since, like Cinderella we had to be back at the castle before midnight, we did get to see what I now consider the epicenter of a Middle Eastern City, the souqs. Souq is a good word if you’re a Scrabble player and you find yourself with a Q on the edge, I think it’s also spelled suq. My interpretation of the definition is marketplace.
Again, the power of an idea had my mind’s eye conjuring up images of tents and dirty streets with animals in various states of life on display with shopkeepers grabbing on to each passerby desperately trying to make a sale. What I found instead was a cobblestone parking lot full of, you guessed it, SUVs. The parking lot was on a little rise that looked over a very modern, yet traditional outdoor mall. The parking lot funneled us onto a walkway lined with some grass that led us into the main Souq area and before I knew it we were immersed in the Middle East.
At home, we’re inundated with images on the news of Arab men, faces covered in cloths of red and white, adorned in flowing robes and brandishing AK-47s, RPG launchers, burning the American flag or participating in some other nefarious activity. We see pictures of women in burqas and think “what a repressive society they live in over there.” Rarely do we see an image of similarly dressed individuals eating dinner, smoking a hookah pipe over coffee or walking around town with their kids in tow. The opportunity to see how the
other 99% live is lost for us when day to day living isn’t deemed newsworthy.
These people were my first impression of being out in the community so to speak, and it was a good one for me. My next impression is the smells wafting about as we ventured deeper into the souq. The walkways were lined with restaurants and coffee shops with outdoor seating everywhere. Truly a testament to the international culture here, we saw people of all races, creeds and colors, and they were all sitting outside, enjoying a meal or a cup of coffee, dessert or taking a pull off the hookah pipe. Most importantly to me, they were all enjoying themselves, laughter and chatter filled our ears and strawberry, apple or peach shisha smoke filled our noses.
It took some getting used to, to be certain, but by the end of the night I actually felt I could look around normally without feeling like I was staring. More importantly, ten minutes into the evening I felt like I didn’t need to worry about pickpockets, kidnappers or suicide bombers.
Dinner plans were altered a little when we couldn’t find the Iranian restaurant. We found an Iraqi restaurant that looked like it might be good, judging from the piles of fresh naan bread filling baskets at every table and the ever relaxing scent of a wood fired oven/stove. Instead we ventured back to a non-descript Middle Eastern restaurant that we passed by three times in search of the Iranian place. I say non-descript only because it wasn’t associated with any particular country, it was indeed descript in all other facets. The picture I posted earlier is from the front page of our menu and I thought the words were a valiant attempt at demonstrating their hospitality. The words are at once non-sensical yet make perfect sense, and was a good indiqatar for the level of service we received there.
Fortunately, the menu was complete with pictures and short English descriptions of each meal. I opted for a lamb and rice dish that merely whet my appetite without bedding it back down for the evening. It was delicious to be sure, just not as filling as what I’ve been used to at the old DFAC. We did order some hummus as an appetizer and it went perfectly with all the naan bread we could eat, so I wasn’t left starving after dinner.
Once dinner was over, we decided to start shopping. I wasn’t planning on buying anything since I didn’t feel like storing anything extra in my tiny room for the next three months, but I was interested to see how this bartering stuff works. I learned very quickly that when shopping it is important not to look directly at anything or anybody, and express no interest in what you’re looking at because the shopkeeper is watching your every move like a hawk. The instant he sees your eyebrows move a millimeter in response to some outlandish gold jewelry or other wares, he’s on you.
“Come inside from the heat, my friend,” he’ll say. “I make you good deal, you like gold for your wife, your girlfriend, for both? Ha ha! What you like to see, I make you good deal! Where you from? America? We have problems in the economics here too, I make you good deal.”
There’s really no good way out of that except to feign interest in some smaller piece and hope he quotes you some ridiculous price so you can say something quippy, yet easily translatable like, “I’m really a big dork and have no idea what to say to you right now. I really don’t want to buy anything but thank you for inviting me into your shop.” Actually, I think that’s the story my face told, but I’d say something far less eloquent every time.
As the trip drew to a close we decided to stop at one of the café’s and have a cup of coffee or dessert and just people watch for a while. I opted for a tiny cup or Turkish coffee and a couple others in our party opted for the hookah pipe. Apparently it’s all the rage here, and not at all unpleasant like cigarette smoke. While I didn’t partake, I enjoyed all the different smells they created around me. It’s more of an incense smell than a tobacco smell. The way I understandit is the shisha is a wet, flavored tobacco that is placed beneath some tiny coals. The smoker takes a long pull on an ornate wooden tube at the end of a frilly hose and inhales the scented, flavored smoke. It must be relaxing because there weren’t too many people who weren’t doing it. I figured I’m having a hard enough time breathing over here when I run, I don’t need any more junk in my lungs, whether it smells good or not.
We headed back to the base after that in an effort to beat the crowds before midnight. We had to go through the 4-B inspection point before we were allowed back on base, and that takes more time since they have to search the entire vehicle for any contraband we might have procured in town. Once that was done and we were driving back to our trailer, it was like we never left.
I scurried out of my civilian clothes, threw on my PT gear and went over to the BPC to do laundry and call home.
There’s no doubt I’ll head down again. Apparently there is a very lavish mall designed after the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas that I’d like to see, and a couple of the boys are really pushing me to go deep sea fishing. For now, it’s time to hit the gym and get ready for work tonight.
I will admit, and I’m a little embarrassed by it, Sac and I both wore our murses underneath our shirts the whole time we were downtown.
I hope you’re all doing well!