I love visitors

not just because living in the desert can make you appreciate human companionship more than nearly anything, but because visitors to the place you live can give you fresh eyes. This always happens in Doha when I host groups from North America, as I did recently for a three week summer program. There’s so much to say, so it’s likely this will be the subject of several entries.

For now I will focus on the one thing that many people don’t understand about life in the Middle East – gender relations.

The group I hosted was co-ed, or ‘mixed’ as we say here. This mixed group was the first mixed class held at the university where I work that has adjacent but separate male and female campuses. The ironies of this exception (because it was summer) were numerous.

What was most confusing for the North Americans – but not for the subcontientials also in their group – were the apparent contradictions in the Doha based group’s behavior. The female and male students would talk to the female and male student visitors, but never to each other. The local female and male students would sit next to, work with, and laugh in conversation with the visitors of both genders. But they remained invisible to each other, even when traveling as a small group of six back from a weekend trip outside the country.

Years of disciplined socializing ensured that these boundaries were never crossed.

Typically when confronted with something different, the visitors wanted to change this, insist that it didn’t exist, or read their own motivations into this clear delineation of gendered behavior.

As the hinge person between these two groups, I was often caught in the middle. What surprised me is my lack of desire to ‘change’ or ‘make right’ the situation. Perhaps because this is the start of my fourth year living in the Arabian Gulf. Or perhaps I truly am beginning to have more respect for the host country and culture. In either case, I found it natural.

But I am glad the program is over and I can go back to working predominately with the female students (who outnumber the male students in significant numbers). Now I don’t have to worry about who is sitting next to whom or who doesn’t want her photo taken or who is trying to shake the hand of a person who doesn’t shake with people of the opposite sex.

In short, I’m excited about getting back to work.