The Best and Worst Parts of Living in Qatar

Porto Arabia, Doha, Qatar, as seen from Donovan and Kate’s apartment

Porto Arabia, Doha, Qatar, as seen from Donovan and Kate’s apartment

What’s it like living in a Muslim country that fasts for an entire month and limits the sale of booze? What do Qataris think of Americans? And how the heck do you pronounce Qatar?


They’re young. They don’t have kids. They figured, why not?

Deciding to pick up and move from the U.S. to Qatar a couple of years ago, Donovan and Kate are inspirations. Don’t we all dream of embarking on such a journey? After all, you only live once (unless the Hindus and New Agers happen to be right about reincarnation).

Fasting is the real deal. No food, no water, not even gum or Advil until sundown. Even if you’re not fasting, you’re not supposed to do any of those things in public, not even in your car.

Of course they did pick a Muslim country in the middle of a desert to move to. That comes with its highs and lows.

“If we get kicked out of the country for any of these answers, we’re moving in with you,” Donovan threatened. “Warn Duke.”


Kate and Donovan tied the knot in Mykonos, Greece. Wedding photos by Shaun Menary Photography

What’s the best part about Qatar?

Qatar’s 90% expat, so every day you interact with people from a ton of different cultures and backgrounds. It creates pretty tight bonds between unlikely people, since there’s a sense that we’re all in this together (being away from home in a sometimes strange country).

We once went out on a Friday night with some casual friends and, several drinks later, all ended up booking a trip to Lebanon together. The next weekend. And it was a blast. And you need that kind of support. 

Back to that Lebanon trip: One of the best things about living in Qatar is its proximity to so many interesting places. It takes three hours to fly to Cairo, four hours to Kathmandu, five hours to Kenya, seven hours to Saigon — it turns out it’s easier (and cheaper!) to get to cool places when you don’t have to cross an ocean.  


What’s the worst part about Qatar?

The place changes so quickly that it surprises you, whether you’ve been here for five months or five years! Three days ago, Kate was on her way to work and discovered that, unannounced, the road to get there had closed, and no one bothered to put up any signs to redirect traffic.

That’s the other worst thing: traffic. More or less everyone drives like a lunatic, with no regard for laws, other cars, pedestrians, light posts, etc. It’s every Land Cruiser for himself out there.


What surprised you about Qatar?

How normal it can feel. We’re half a world away from home and hear the call to prayer five times a day, but every Sunday during the fall we still drink a few beers and watch football. Donovan still buys his standard-issue White Guy Clothes at the Banana Republic at the mall. We’re still up-to-date on Game of Thrones and Orange Is the New Black. We go to bars less often, but we drink just as much (possibly more!).

It’s a nice mix of a “cultural experience” with a bubble you can retreat into when you just want to unwind with a glass of wine and Scandal. If it weren’t for the call to prayer, you’d swear you were back home — though good luck getting a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza out here.


What is Ramadan really like? 

Ah, Ramadan. We’re currently right in the middle of the holy month, which for those of us who don’t fast is actually kind of nice. Work hours are shorter, there’s a lot less traffic, and everybody’s generally more laid-back (possibly from lack of energy). The pace of life is a lot slower, since basically everything is closed until sundown.

There are tents set up around town for iftar (the evening meal to break the fast) with giant buffets and entertainment. There are similarities to Christmas in the U.S.: Everything’s lit up at night, people get together with family for meals, and the stores all have sales.

For Muslims it’s a time of reflection and increased spirituality, which fasting is supposed to emphasize. And fasting is the real deal. No food, no water, not even any gum or Advil until sundown. Even if you’re not fasting, you’re not supposed to do any of those things in public, not even in your car. Which is a drag when you go to a matinee and they’re not selling popcorn, even though the whole theater smells like it.


What about Muslim culture overall?

Asking about Muslim culture is sort of like asking about “European culture” or “American culture.” The range of experiences is just so broad. On one extreme, you have Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive and can’t go out in public without a male relative. On the other hand, you have Bahrain, which is connected to Saudi by a causeway and yet is full of Muslim men drinking beer and playing pool in bars.

Qatar is somewhere in between, but certainly leans conservative. Islam is the state religion (hence the short work days during Ramadan, hooray!), so alcohol and pork are restricted but available to non-Muslims. The aforementioned calls to prayer are ubiquitous, but it’s not like people drop everything at that moment to go pray.

It’s been interesting to hear certain orange-hued people in the U.S. [that’s a Trump dig, in case you missed it] claim that Islam is incompatible with modern life, given that every day in Doha hundreds of thousands of Muslims put on their abayas and thobes, grab Starbucks on the way to work and eagerly await the next Star Wars movie.


What’s the Qatari view of Americans?

Qataris are pro-America, Trump aside. We’ve both worked at U.S.-based universities over here, and we’ve seen that Qatari students embrace the Western college experience — dorms, sports, study abroad — that doesn’t really exist here otherwise.

One of the great moments we’ve experienced was hearing the brass band at the Georgetown graduation play Pharrell’s “Happy” when the Father Emir — basically Qatar’s George Washington — greeted students.

It’s always an enjoyable thing to see Qataris wrestling their Louis Vuitton shopping bags onto the plane when coming back from a jaunt to Los Angeles or New York.


What’s an interesting local custom?

Sharing of food is a major part of the culture here. At Qatari weddings, they’ll have a tent with multiple massive platters of rice with a whole lamb on top of each. Family-style eating is very popular, and our Arab colleagues frequently bring lunch for everyone.

Shisha, the local version of the hookah, is also a big part of restaurant meals, similar to an after-dinner drink when you want to hang out just a little while longer.


Most useful phrases for a traveler?

You can get by in Qatar on English alone, but if you want to go local:

Shukran (shoo-kran): thank you

Insha’allah: literally “God willing.” Used to mean “hopefully,” or, in a business setting, “don’t count on it.” For example, “I will get it to you Tuesday, insha’allah” means “I will not get it to you Tuesday.” 

A salaam alaikum: Means “peace be unto you.” Polite greeting to any Muslim, who will respond, “Alaikum salaam.” 

Khalas: “Enough” or “that’s it.” Useful when bargaining.

Yalla!: “Let’s go!”


How do you pronounce Qatar?

Khalas, Wally. Khalas.


That last answer is because Donovan and I would get into friendly arguments at work about how to pronounce the country’s name. He insisted it was “Ka-tahr,” as most Americans do. But I had heard it pronounced “Cutter” on NPR, and I figured that was a reliable source.

Donovan refused to believe me — until he moved to Qatar. Turns out I was right. Though I’m hardly one to brag.

For the record, though: It’s “Cutter.” –Wally