The Expat Files: what's it like living in the Middle East?

Kirsty in Qatar

It’s been a while since we last spoke to one of our expat readers so today we jet over to Qatar to hear from Kirsty who has been living in Doha for over a year.  I have always been fascinated by Middle Eastern countries and was interested to read about a real life in Qatar without “spin” or the stereotypes.

So over to Kirsty and Lana…(Lana is asking the questions, Kirsty is doing all the answering)

Where do you live?

I have lived in Doha, Qatar since 2009 My husband and I left Australia in 2000. We began our travels in Indonesia then on to  Malaysia, Libya, Canada, US and now Qatar. We have 4 children born in 4 different locations along the way.

What took to Qatar ?

We chose Qatar because of it’s enormous possibilities. After spending time in Asia, Africa and North America we thought we would like to try the Middle East. Qatar has experienced enormous growth in recent years. It’s a very exciting place to be.

How did you prepare for this move ?

I’ve gathered a little network of expat women and in the expat world everyone seems to know someone who knows someone who once lived somewhere. My husband came for a visit and looked at housing and schools and I contacted a couple of expat women groups with a list of questions. Apart from our usual truck load of vegemite we really didn’t bring anything else from home. There’s not too much that you can’t find here now.

What are the biggest cultural differences?

camel racing

The moment you arrive the world looks very different from the Western world visually. The local men and women look amazing in their Thobes and Abayas. There is a mosque on every corner and the desert sun and moon feature prominently in the sky. I have marveled at so many gorgeous orange skies with a stunning setting sun. We arrived in November (beginning of winter) so dressing modestly wasn’t a challenge but in summer when daily temperatures are over 40 degrees I have had to really become creative with my wardrobe. I have a growing collection of scarfs to cover my shoulders.

What is the best thing about living in Qatar?

It feels very safe to live in Doha. Family is important here and children are seen as a blessing. I have found Qatari people to be very generous and friendly. My children attend a very multicultural International school where children of all races and religions learn and play together every day. I love going to school events and looking in to the crowd of parents, all in different cultural dress but all there for the same reason. Even though we are from Qatar, North America, Asia, Europe and Australia we are all doing the same thing….madly waving at our children and taking video and pictures with stupid proud grins on our faces. It makes you think of our similarities rather than our differences.

Have you adopted any Qatari customs  into your life?

We’ve certainly adopted a lot of the food. We love the hummus, tajines and kebeh found at the local restaurants. My husband is a regular at the fish markets each Friday morning (our weekend falls on Friday/Saturday). We love to spend time at the local souks and I recently smoked a shi sha pipe with a girlfriend in the main souk. I’m gradually finding my way around the fabric, gold and vegetable souks in town and love bartering for a bargain. I think I have also gained a lot of respect for the Abaya (an Arabic  cultural  garment essentially like a long robe) and find that I dress a lot more conservatively now.

What is most different about your life in Qatar compared to your old life in Australia?

I don’t pack my own groceries or put petrol in my car.  There is one sole provider for alcohol so definitely no stopping at Dan Murphy’s to pick up a bottle of wine on the way to dinner. The babysitter does my washing and ironing when my husband and I have a night out?!  We both miss our families terribly but skype has definitely changed our world. Having Granny or Grandma sing Happy Birthday along with us on the laptop as we blow out the candles of the cake doesn’t make her seem so far away.

How important do you feel it is to retain your “Aussie” status? 

It is extremely important to us. Only one of my four children was born in Australia and we moved her back to Jakarta when she was 11 days old. There is a term for my children “third culture kids” so we are well aware that they need a sense of belonging. They are all Australian passport holders and all think of themselves as Australian and we have worked very hard to make that happen. We always try for an extended visit home (2 months at a time) at least once a year. They can all sing the Australian Anthem, we go to Auskick on Friday mornings, watch Rugby and AFL, they are currently watching Australian Masterchef every night and listen to Australian audio books in the car. We have done the Hot Potato with the Wiggles in most Australian states as well as North America (they’re in Dubai next month and I’m seriously contemplating tickets). We celebrate Australia Day and have joined the ANZA Association here in Doha. There is a large Australian population in Doha and my guys have a lot of Australian and New Zealand friends.


The family…..and a camel

How have your children handled expat life?

My children do not know any other life. Their issue will be fitting in to a non expat life when the time comes.

I have had a children in Australia, Malaysia, Malta and Canada but I haven’t had a child in Doha.

Has it been easy to make friends ?

Very easy . There are a lot of groups and clubs to join and the children are always a great icebreaker.

Are the relationships very different?

Relationships are tremendously different. My friends in Australia are mostly from school or work and we all have strong commonalities eg. lived in the same areas, went to the same schools/clubs or worked in the same field. We share a history. My expat friends are all ages and nationalities. When you travel and find yourself making a connection with someone you tend to share information quickly. I’m not sure if it’s because there isn’t the history or because we can’t label people in their usual boxes. You rely on people enormously as you don’t have family to fall back on and we are all in the same boat.   I have girlfriends in all of our previous locations that have helped me through very personal situations. It’s always the hardest thing about leaving a country, the people you have to say goodbye to.

Looking in your handbag – do you see Australia or Doha?

The pictures of my children that were taken in a very close friends backyard remind me of Australia, as well as the mobile phone with the Aussie sim card that gets a kick start every time we return. I keep a scarf in my handbag at all times to cover up if I need to, that’s definitely a Doha reminder. I think we have 2 homes. Doha is school, work, daily routine and sport. Australia is family, holidays and a reminder of who we are.

Preparing dinner for the family – what is on the table?

A bit of both. My husband is an amazing cook and we’ve picked up a lot of dishes in our travels. I think our children are quite adaptable with spice after spending time in Asia. At least one night a week we’ll have local food (because it’s really easy) and I’ll do a spread with pita bread, hummus, a roast chicken, fresh summer vegetables and kebeh. I’m waiting to see how much our vegetable supply decreases as the heat sets in. I’m told to expect temperatures over 50 degrees when we get to August. My nine year old daughter makes a fabulous pavlova.

If someone was coming to visit from Australia what three things would you ask that they bring for you?

Freddo Frogs, Maggie Beer pate and the new tele-movie that Claudia Karvan was in on SBS.

What three things would you tell a prospective immigrant to Qatar to bring ?

An open mind,  patience for the first 2 months while you settle in and a great summer wardrobe that includes 20 pairs of bathers and something to cover your shoulders.

What do you miss most about Australia ?

I miss friends and family and being in the same time zone to make a quick call…… and drive through bottle stores (what a fabulous Australian invention).

What don’t you miss about Australia ?

The drought in my home town, I’m amazed and disappointed at how dry it is when I go home.

Have you travelled to Qatar? Any Middle Eastern country?