The Chronicles of a Couple of Pietists in the Mid-East

by Arvid Adell

July, 2008: I receive a contract to teach two courses in Philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Doha, Qatar. All of my acquaintances ask the same question: “How did you get a gig to teach at a prestigious place like Carnegie Mellon?” “I respond with a multiple-choice quiz: Is it because 1) of my global reputation as a pedagogue? 2) of my international status as a scholar? or 3) my nephew is the Dean of the CMU campus in Qatar? Their answers are all the same. Sometimes, nepotism trumps meritocracy!

October 3: I hop on a plane at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago en route to Dulles in Washington, DC, then catch a Qatar Airline 767 to Doha. Karen will join me in two weeks. The flight is around 17 hours, counting lay-overs. On Carnegie Mellon’s dime, I fly first/business class for the first, and probably the only, time in my life. Can you believe that they give free pajamas including “footies” and eye blinders to all of us privileged types?

October 4: I disembark at Qatar International Airport into a 90 degree evening. The good news is that we are beginning the “cool” season in the Mid-East. The bad news is that the humidity in the Gulf is exceptionally high. Still, it is exciting to be here.

October 5-10: The University insists that its “rookie” foreign faculty arrive in Doha one week before classes begin. I am residing on the 12th floor of a Four Seasons Hotel annex and my apartment overlooks the Arabian Gulf. I can get used to this venue! Downtown Doha is like Manhattan, only newer. It’s filled with capitalists, not Bedouin tribesmen. Qatar is mostly desert but it advertises itself as the wealthiest nation in the world. There’s natural gas under that sand and every citizen gets a piece of the real estate. The average per capita annual income is a tax free $85,000—for just “being indigenous.” We non-Qataris are called “expatriates” and, short of marrying one of the Emir’s daughters, have no chance of getting a piece of that action!

October 11: Classes begin. Last week, the Qatar Tribune featured a story of a young Afghan student/reporter who was sentenced to death for “insulting Islam” by asking “hostile, careless, and rude” questions. (Ironically, one of his questions was “Why is Islam such a harsh religion?”) An appeals court reduced his sentence to a “mere” twenty years in prison. I wonder if that protocol applied to professors in Qatar as well. All but three of my students are Muslim and half of the male students are wearing “thobes” (floor-length white robes) and white head scarves secured by black or colored ropes, while all of the females are dressed in abeyyas (black gowns) and most of them are veiled. I am hoping that at least a couple of them will be Sufis, those liberal, ecumenical, whirling dervishes, but no such luck. I will have to take my chances with the rigidly doctrinaire Sunnis. My faculty mentor has advised: “Be yourself but don’t caricature Mohammed nor Islam.” For a philosopher, that’s a tall order!

October 21: I’m a coward! I don’t drive in Qatar. Too dangerous! Very few stop lights so intersections are war zones. I persuade Sham and Shubha, my Indian neighbors, to escort me to the airport to pick up my wife, Karen. It takes two tries, of course, because I forget that Doha is about a day ahead of Chicago, time-wise. There’s a lot of stuff for an old man to assimilate.

October 31: Karen and I are transported to the Hospital of Qatar where we must take a complete physical if we wish to continue to stay in the country. Unfortunately, we aren’t the only ones ordered to undergo the Doctor’s scrutiny. There are literally hundreds of migrant workers (each earning about $200 a month plus room and board to build Doha) ahead of us. This could take all day! However, we have friends in high places and our Qatari chauffeur ushers us to the front of the line. Looking around, we spot two men whom we are quite sure we have encountered before. It turns out to be Gary from Indonesia (although he is Egyptian) and Eric from Hungary. We “met” them last night at the Qatar National Theatre where an historic and magnificent event had occurred. Gary plays the French horn and Eric the viola in the newly formed Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra comprised of 101 musicians from 30 different countries which performed its inaugural concert in front of the Emir, Sheik Hammad and his wife Sheikha Mozah and a few hundred “selected” guests. The establishment of the orchestra was the Sheik and the Sheikha’s idea. “Music knows no nationality, religion, geography, politic” they explained, “and it bridges all barriers between East and West.” The program reflected the universality of music: Beethoven’s Fifth, Ravel’s Bolero, and, most stirring for us, The Arabian Concerto by Marcel Khalife, a Lebanese who is the world’s most highly acclaimed oud player and a well respected Director as well. In his introductory comments before conducting his Symphony, Khalife remarked that he had deliberately composed a piece “to remove the burden of sadness in people’s lives and to provide cross-cultural celebration of love and peace by combining instruments and themes from the East and the West.” The consensus was that he succeeded in an extraordinary way. For a lot of reasons, all good, we couldn’t fall asleep easily that night. Not only the superb concert, but the promising implications of what had just occurred made this one of the most exciting and meaningful experiences of our lives.

November 3: In Business Ethics, my students instruct me why the United States is in a huge financial crises. They all have different opinions but the most popular one is that we neglect to obey the Islamic prohibition of “gambling.” We invest in hedge funds and other extremely risky ventures and this is gambling. Islamic institutions do not do so and they are doing very well, thank you. This line of reasoning is revelatory of how most Muslims think, even these unusually bright and sophisticated university students. There is an Islamic moral component in every judgment and action. If you obey the Prophet, you are home free.

November 10: In the Introduction to Philosophy class, we discuss the various arguments for the existence of God. These scholars exhibit quick, nimble minds. They understand and articulate the ontological, cosmological, and teleological demonstrations for the essence and existence of God as well as any of my former students. However, our discussions are “purely academic” in the sense that the Islamic mind has no epistemological issues with either the nature or reality of God (Nor with the Koran—Qu’ran). As Muslims, certitude of religious matters is a legacy which is bequeathed, a kind of birthright which precludes even the slightest hint of doubt or agnosticism. Yet, in spite of this absolutist mentality, these students are not condescending nor judgmental towards Christians—at least not openly. They are not pluralists but they certainly are tolerant.

November 12: Today I bring to class a report in the Gulf Times about a British couple, unmarried, who are on trial in Dubai for “being a public nuisance.” The charges are that these Westerners drank alcohol and kissed “overtly” on a public beach. The United Arab Emirates as well as Qatar obeys the Shari’a, the Islamic legal system dating back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, which explicitly forbids the consumption of alcohol and public displays of sensuality. The prosecution wants to try these Londoners for adultery which can be a capital offense for Muslims, but they lack DNA evidence. Instead, they are found guilty of lesser charges and sentenced to three months in jail and permanent deportation. I ask the students if this seems fair and they unanimously agree that it is. (It is my observation that unmarried Muslims never openly demonstrate physical affection, even to the point of refraining from holding hands.) “Of course,” confess my students, “what happens behind closed doors is another matter.” Muslim marriages are still arranged by parents, although the younger generation can veto the parental selection. It is of extreme importance that the bride and groom are “pure” when dowries are exchanged and their marriage vows are secured. “By the way,” interjects Karim, my delightfully recalcitrant Syrian, “just be thankful that the Brits weren’t having a pork sandwich on the beach as well!”

November 17: My nephew, Dean Thorpe, his wife Leslie, Karen, and I drive 60 miles into the desert to see camel races. These are big deals in Qatar. The jockeys sit side-saddle on their mounts during the preliminary exercises, but in the races they are replaced with robots. High tech in the desert.

November 19: I am curious about my students’ views on a couple of Islamic tenets which I consider to be contradictory. I have just enough mileage to know better than to try a direct assault. “I read somewhere,” I begin, (and surely someone has written this somewhere) “that your beliefs about Paradise are incompatible with your Shari’a and your common morality. The author was referring to your claim that in the hereafter worthy Muslims can do in heaven what is forbidden on earth—eat any food they desire, drink as much wine as they wish, and engage in guiltless sex with a variety of intelligent, soulless pleasure-mates even though still married. Can this be possible? Doesn’t this reveal Allah as being inconsistent?” “Not at all Professor. This life on earth is merely a kind of moral practice ground to see who earns the eternal pleasures of the next one.” Kind of like having to carry out the garbage and thereby earning a really huge allowance. Aristotle’s logic is irrelevant here so I change the subject.

November 24: I return to yesterday’s discussion about the life after this one. How does one gain entrance into Paradise? Can Christians make it? The good news is that we can if we have not embraced Islam and then rejected it. However, we must be diligent in obeying our religion and when Allah and his subordinates weigh our deeds on the Judgment scale, the good must outweigh the evil. “One other small matter for your consideration, Dr. Adell,” one of their spokespersons continues with a somewhat impish smile on his face, “There are seven layers in Paradise and your chance of entering the one where wine, pork, and beautiful virgins are available at no cost is practically nil unless you convert.” Not all religions are created equal.

November 26: Last day of classes. I am curious about what kind of rapport I have established with these students. So I volunteer an impious comment: “Qatar and Carnegie Mellon University are wonderful places in which to live and teach except for one major problem; too many Muslims! We need more of us Christians, variety being the spice of life!” Then I step back, retreating from the possible line of fire and waiting for their response. All of the students laugh! We have arrived. They did offer this comment, “Dr. Adell, we have never had a teacher like you before.” I know better than to ask what they meant by that!

A Digression: A Five Day Tour of the Holy Land.

November 27: Karen and I are flying from Doha to Tel Aviv to spend time in Israel and the West Bank. However, the Jewish authorities allow no flights into Israel from any Arab nation except Egypt (sometimes) and Jordan. We opt for Jordan where our plane misses its connection and we are forced to spend the night in a one-half star hotel on the out-skirts of Amman. When we arrive late at night, the lobby is overflowing with hundreds of white-clad Muslims en route to performing their sacred pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca/Medina. We thought we had died and gone to heaven!

November 28: Our personal tour guide, Issa, a Palestinian Roman Catholic, whose brothers have been imprisoned and many of his friends killed by being involved in Arafat’s intifadas, books us at a hotel in Bethlehem about half a block from the Separation Wall which is 26 feet tall, four or five feet wide, and, when complete, approximately 600 miles long. It is an ominous reminder that the West Bank and Israel are neighbors who coexist but “do not speak.” It, plus the amplified operatic “call to prayer” from a nearby minaret which seems to go on continuously through out the night, dominate the landscape. It is very difficult to sleep.

December 1: The last night of our tour is spent in Nazareth. Since our plane back to Jordan and then on to Qatar departs early in the morning, we leave our hotel at 2:30 a.m. There is a continual mist which makes the dark, chilly night even bleaker. Half-way to Ben Gurion Airport we come to an intersection dimly lit by the street lights. Just barely, I can see the traffic sign arrowing south to a mostly dark city. The sign reads: Megiddo. So this is it! The locus of the long awaited apocalyptic battle of Armageddon which ushers in “the end of the world as we know it.” The dreaded cataclysmic event. One can’t help but shudder.

December 7: After Royal Jordanian Airlines returns us to Doha, Qatar Airways flies us to Dulles in Washington, DC, United transports us to O’Hare in Chicago, and the Coach USA drops us off close to home. It’s good to be back. But we wouldn’t mind returning to Qatar some time. If only we could acquire citizenship, we’d be on easy street!

Arvid Ardell is a retired Professor of Philosophy at Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois.

See all articles by Arvid Adell