Friday, May 02, 2008


I'm trying to integrate three experiences from this last week. I've spun them in my own mind as examples of culture but I'm still working through how I relate to each. Perhaps I'll make the connections, perhaps you'll see what I can't, or at least I'll have the opportunity to share three great encounters - one with an artist/performer, one with a scholarship donor, and one with my staff colleagues.

We hosted Guy Manoukian in Doha last week. Our Faculty and Student Life Coordinator brought Guy (pronounced like "Gee") in as an end-of-the-year celebration and opportunity to continue to build community among our faculty and staff. Guy is a Lebanese/Armenian "world music" performer. I had never heard his music before but was quickly drawn into his performance. He started with relatively "safe" and passive music and then gradually built to a driving fusion jazz performance that incorporated many styles, but most notably the sounds, instruments, and feel of Lebanon and Armenia. By chance, Guy sent an e-mail to our Coordinator and copied it to me. I enjoyed his performance so much that I messaged back, sharing the fact that I'm an amateur pianist myself. I also posed a question about his style; while I was listening I could have sworn that I heard the influences of Michel Camillo, a South American jazz pianist and composer. Amazing as it might seem, Guy responded in his next message, "Spot on! You got me." I was utterly amazed that I heard the connection across two continents and two very different styles of music to find the artistic similarity of these two musicians. Guy is extraordinary; if you want some very fun and different music for your next dinner party, buy one of his CDs and give it a try!

The second encounter was with a man whose name I will not reveal. He is an individual who is very prominent in Qatar and has made considerable wealth through real estate. I've heard others say that he owns much of the property along the Doha Coniche (the rapidly developing area of downtown - picture to right). I met him in an interview of students who were being considered as potential recipients for a scholarship in his father's name. The first thing I did was thank him for his support of students. His response - "This is my joy, my pleasure, and my fulfillment. It is but a drop in the ocean." The bravado appeared a little over the top but I soon realized that he was completely sincere. The cultural part of this story, other than the depth of commitment this man has to Qatar, was a great surprise. The typical way Arabs are characterized is subtle, non-confrontive, and guarded in their communication. To my incredible surprise, the interviews with students unfolded in ways that I could never have imagined. The man was direct, almost to a fault, and a little scary at times. He even told one of the candidates to leave the room and wait for a recall because he wasn't impressed with her conviction. He later drew her back in, told her that she had another chance, and then proceeded to treat her with the tenderness of a father. He was challenging her to give everything of herself and not to hold back on the beliefs she had as a talented young woman. Watching this generous man work with students to tease their potential to the surface was amazing and not an encounter I'll soon forget. And, by the way, the stereotypical cultural approach in this case was completely outside of what I expected.

The third encounter was with several of my colleagues who have begun a "Take Away" lunch where we talk about professional issues, reading, etc. (By the way, "take away" is our language for "carry out" or delivered lunch.) We were talking about an article that described an institution that had struggled with years of budget reductions, the likes of which resulted in a sense of hopelessness and dejection. The author of the piece described the deep connections that staff made through the process of identifying commitments they would make to each other as they sought to create a better climate on their campus. As we talked about this example, we started exploring the commitments we could make to each other during the rapid changes we are experiencing.

During the "Take Away," one of our Qatari female colleagues spoke of feeling that some of the ex-pat staff in the Education City branches treat her differently because she is covered; covered means wearing an abaya (the black overgarment) and hijab (the veil that covers her hair). This revelation, the first I've heard directly from an Arab colleague, took us into a much deeper conversation about the changes that are underway in Qatar. It was very clear that our Qatari colleagues have a deep desire to fully engage but that there are dynamics that make full inclusion and participation difficult.

Later on in the afternoon, one of my ex-pat colleagues came to my office to express that the revelation about cultural change had helped her understand another person with whom she'd talked earlier in the week. We sat in my office in silence, as we both realized that development doesn't occur, in students or in culture, unless there is unconditional affirmation that makes taking the risk surmountable. I hadn't realized that student development principles that describe the difficulty of developmental change relate so closely to the dynamics of adapting one's culture. Our Arab colleague was committed to doing what it takes to be contemporary and building a future for herself and others, but the process of change is no less difficult than it is for a young adult in a difficult developmental transition. In both cases, the process requires understanding and affirmation. That my colleague's abaya and hijab would be an impediment to cross-cultural communication represents ex-pat discomfort, not that of our Arab colleagues. The abaya and hijab are simply statements of modesty and respect in Islam. What an irony that something intended to foster respect would result in a barrier for others who don't understand.

As I think of these three encounters, I'm not sure that there is a relationship, other than the fact that each reflects an encounter with one's culture. I love being able to have these kinds of experiences and I love being with others as we discover the importance of culture, of us as human beings, and of the possibilities that lie ahead as we continue to know each other more deeply.

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