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THIMUN- Qatar: Andy Newman Reports

December 8, 2011

Duthimun01.jpegring assembly on Thursday, December 8, Andrew Newman '87 (fine arts, school photographer) reported on his recent trip to Doha to lead the press team of the inaugural THIMUN-Qatar. Throughout his presentation, Newman showed slides. His remarks follow:

"Good morning. So many of you have asked about my trip to the Middle East, that I figured an assembly presentation was in order. Your questions have ranged from 'Why do you get to go there?' to 'Are you crazy?' I’ve also heard a lot of  'is it Cut-her, Cut-Tar, K-Tar...Salomon has even been saying Guitar?' But mainly I have heard a lot of genuine 'what’s it like over there?'  

Before this trip, a majority of my own thoughts about the Middle East have been negative, in the sense that what I hear and see about the region and people is conflict, tension and violence which have bred my own stereotypes and prejudices of the people, the culture and the religions of Arabs. To be honest, I hadn’t given it that much thought, but I am very much aware of how much the news sets our agenda! And then, while I was away enjoying every minute of the trip, I heard you all were given a controversial presentation by our alumnus Leland Vittert. It saddened me to hear from some of you who felt he was perpetuating the negative stereotype—and there I was in the Middle East, in awe of the beauty of the land and its people and feeling perfectly comfortable and safe among friends. I am simply here to share with you what was really an incredible journey and life-changing experience during my trip to the first annual THIMUN Qatar Conference.

Now bare with me as I go into a little background so we are all on the same page. THIMUN [The Hague International Model United Nations} is the annual simulation of the work of the United Nations that takes place for high school students in the Netherlands. It’s really the ultimate academic field trip for students interested in international diplomacy, who want to discuss global issues, who love to travel abroad and meet international students.   

The THIMUN  conference began in 1968. In 1987, my classmates at JBS who were taking a Developing Nations history class became the first JBS team to go to THIMUN. That means this year’s team will mark the 25th anniversary of our school’s participation at the conference. THIMUN has grown to be the largest high school MUN conference in the world. 

In my 16 years attending THIMUN I have been privileged to watch it grow to a Foundation with NGO status and respected by world leaders and the UN itself. 

As a result of THIMUN gaining this status,  many of the world's larger MUN conferences wish to be associated with THIMUN. So THIMUN has designated 34 programs around the world as THIMUN – Affiliated MUN Conferences. They are simply MUNs whose educational goals, standards and quality of organization are recognized as being of an appropriately high standard. They are in Quito, Ecuador, Johannesburg, South Africa, St. Petersburg, Russia, Istanbul, Turkey and Mumbai, India to name just a few locations. Roughly a few hundred students attend each of these conferences.  

In 2006, recognizing the desire for more Asian-Pacific schools to attend THIMUN as well as their lack of financial resources to travel to the Netherlands, the THIMUN Foundation created THIMUN–Singapore as a gateway to Southeast Asia and Australia MUN.  This year 1200 students attended this conference in Singapore.

Last year at the THIMUN conference in The Hague, the THIMUN Board announced that it was going to organize a third THIMUN conference, in the Middle East. Recognizing an increase in MUN popularity in various schools in the Middle East, particularly schools with high Muslim populations, THIMUN–Qatar was planned primarily to give more Middle Eastern girls the opportunity to attend a large scale MUN conference since they could not travel outside the region to attend larger conferences like THIMUN–The Hague. If these passionate, highly educated young people who want to make a difference in the world can’t come to THIMUN, THIMUN would come to them.

Before the end of last year’s conference, I was approached by the coordinator of THIMUN-Qatar, Cameron Janzen, a man much like our own Mr. Tasker in energy, enthusiasm, leadership and stature. He also worked in the Peace Corps.  Mr. Janzen told me he wanted me to come to Qatar to head up the MUNITY press team, something I’ve been doing in The Hague for 15 years.

...In the four months I had to organize the press team and plan for the trip, I realized I had to really educate myself about Qatar, the Qatari people, the students in Qatar, the Arab world, the Persian Gulf, the Muslim way of life, the Quran, oil, pearls, camels, deserts, British sovereignty, hajabs — the list kept growing as I realized I was really going to stand out as an American tourist.  And THAT is something I thought I had to be worried about. I’ve never traveled in the Middle East. Of Jewish heritage, I’ve always thought about going to Israel, but never to the Persian Gulf, which is portrayed in our society as an area of conflict and tension, to put it lightly.  

I started with the basics.  Where is this place and how do you really pronounce it? 

Qatar is a country, a peninsula projecting northward in the Persian Gulf. It’s about the size of Connecticut  and has a population of about 2 million people. The Capital city is Doha. There are several other populated cities, but about 95% of the country is flat, barren desert. The country is extremely wealthy primarily because of its enormous oil and natural gas revenues. It has a long history, but I focused on the fact that Qatar gained it’s independence from British rule in 1971. It has been ruled as an absolute monarchy since the mid 19th century by the Al Thani family.

In 1995, the current Emir Al Thani took over from his aging father in a peaceful coup d’etat, primarily because he wanted the country to move forward into the 21st century. The rate of growth and production the last 15 years has been enormous. In 2010, Qatar had the world’s highest GDP per capita, while the economy grew by 19.4%, the fastest in the world. I’ve heard a lot about the rapid growth in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, but I had no idea what was taking place in Qatar. Of the 2 million people, only 20% are Qatari. Eighty percent of the population are foreign workers who make up 90% of the total labor force.  About 10,000 U.S. citizens reside in Qatar.

I then focused my studies on the basics of Middle Eastern culture and religion. Who were the people I’d be working with and how could I, as a visitor, show respect for their way of life? For beginners I wanted to make sure I knew the difference between the meaning behind the words Arab, Islam, Muslim: that the word Arab is a generic term for all Middle Eastern people, that Islam should refer to the religion or acts done in the name of the religion and a Muslim should be used to describe all people of the Islamic faith. A man is not Islamic, but there is Islamic art. Arabic is not the only language in the Middle East; in fact, there are at least seven, and Muslim should not describe the Islamic faith, but just the followers of the religion of Islam. I read the five pillars of Islam and a bit of the Quran. I had lots of questions about women’s rights and expected in my travels to find women totally subservient to men in all aspects of the culture and religion, though I did read that in many places changes and progress for women were coming about slowly and Qatar, I’d heard, was one of the most liberal of Arab nations.

I thought about what Arabs and Muslims wear and what I should pack. I was worried about standing out as the ugly American, disrespecting their customs and traditions. What I learned is that it’s always hot in Qatar. It is a desert!  But to respect the Muslim traditions, it would be wrong to wear short pants and short sleeves in public. The white robes, called thawbs or dishdhasha, that Arab men wear, now made a lot of sense. I worried about the Arab women who always seemed to wear black and how they managed when it’s 120 degrees in the shade. I decided for myself a tan suit, khakis and white shirts would have to do. 

I also really wanted to know more about local laws and customs. I learned in advance that public displays of affection between genders is discouraged. Couples holding hands or kissing in public is not culturally or legally accepted and that sexual relations between unmarried couples is a criminal offense in Qatar. I was told by the students that they don’t have dances at their schools for some of the above reasons and that when greeting an Arab, look for signs that he is willing to shake your hand, otherwise a simple hello or As-Salam is fine.    

The rationale behind men and women covering much of their bodies is that they are not to be viewed as sexual objects. Traditionally, men and women cover much of their body. Covering the face is subject to differences of opinion amongst the scholars I read, some consider it to be compulsory since the face is the major source of attraction, while others consider it to be highly recommended for women. But overall, I learned that all you are required in Islam is to dress modestly, by covering your hair and your body.  Not your face, that is someone's personal choice and a cultural thing, not religious.

I’ve rambled on for 10 minutes about all this preparation because I am amazed at how worried I was in advance. Certainly one fears the unknown and there is so much about this world I was about to enter that is unknown to me. I left St. Louis on November 20th with an open mind and as prepared as I could ever be, and until I got there and saw things for myself, I just wouldn’t know. 

And what I saw was amazing.  

I flew from St. Louis to D.C. and then directly to Doha on Qatar Airlines, the winner of the 2011 world's best airline. I checked my in-flight TV monitor frequently to see where we were during that 14-hour flight. It was a little weird as Baghdad popped up on the screen. I kept checking out the window.  Before landing, I saw for the first time what I had my eye on in the tourist books, the man-made island called The Pearl and the popular beachfront area called Al Corniche. I was put up in the Ramada Plaza along with about 300 football (soccer) players of the Arab Games 2011.

thimun02.jpegThe first day, waking up to a nine-hour time difference, I had to hit the floor running, meeting the press team for their orientation at 8 am. My first impression of Doha as I took the 20-minute taxi ride to the conference center was that there was a lot of demolition and construction underway all around. I ended up hiring the same driver every day, Ibrahim, and got to hear his story, coming from Mumbai, India, leaving his wife and two children, ages 4 and 8, to come to Doha. He returns to India every six months to spend a month with them. I think his personal story is fairly common. The changes he described over the last eight years he has been in Doha are remarkable.  The roads just get more and more congested as more and more people arrive and try to make a living. He pointed out buildings that he saw go up only a few years ago now coming down because of poor planning of the infrastructure. 'There seems to be no planning in some areas,'  Ibrahim criticized.  'No problem here just spending and building.' What Ibrahim helped me understand is that there is a great overuse of space and accumulation of trash and waste. The country is trying to play catch-up and figure out how to adjust to its new lifestyle and fit that many people into this small environment.  Sadly, they overlook environmental issues.

As we pulled into the conference center in Education City, I immediately became familiar with the lavish, extravagant construction that was taking place. Education City is the brainchild of the Emir’s wife, who has committed her life to her country's future. On the campus, which is probably the size of Ladue or Clayton, one will find eight university campuses from the U.S. and Europe, including Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Carnegie Mellon and Northwestern University. There is a new contemporary art museum, a teaching hospital, and the gorgeous conference center that would be my home for the week.  

The first conference to be held in the center was just the week before our arrival. The center cost four billion Qatari Riyals or one billion U.S. dollars. While everyone at THIMUN-Qatar was in awe of the facility, it was a bit ironic that we would be convening in such a lavish building when the money spent to build it could eradicate hunger in the world…..forever! [Newman showed images of the 4000-seat auditorium, the chairs upholstered in Bentley leather, a reflecting pool and a curved escalator, the first in the Middle East.]

thimun03.jpegSo as I looked at my press team list and saw that I had three girls with the Al Thani last name. I thought maybe it was like a Smith or Jones kind of name, but sure enough, I had three royal princesses on our team. ...What really struck me and led to many interesting conversations with the girls, excuse me, princesses, is to see how they dressed. Amna and her cousin Maysam choose to wear the traditional Abaya and Hijab, as decorative and stylish as they may be, out of respect for their family and traditions, while Rana is a bit of the rebel in the family, seen in public dressed in jeans and a short sleeve shirt. She is allowed to express herself  and not get in trouble.  Now that seems like progress.

thimun04.jpegThe diversity of students [at the conference] was awesome. Twelve hundred students attended this first Qatar Conference. Many of them came from about 10 different schools in Doha. There were certainly many from the Persian Gulf region as well as from India, China, South Africa, Egypt, Germany and England. As with Amna’s black abaya, which was actually woven with gold details, many of the students attire were incredibly stylish and had lots of character and showed their personality. I admit, I expected to see a lot of plain black and white and more coverings.

thimun05.jpegIn the evenings, I’d get back to the hotel around 7 pm and have dinner. Just out of convenience, I ate most nights in the hotel.  Mostly western food, but I did try camel which has pretty tough meat. The second evening after dinner at about 9 pm, ready to retire I said to myself, 'How often do you come to the Qatar?' I motivated myself and packed my camera equipment and headed to The Souq or open market. I stayed out until 1 am, roaming the passages and shops, with camera and tripod in hand. I climbed ladders and shot from rooftops and enjoyed talking to shopkeepers, in English, about their day and they asked me about my pictures. It was a great night of photography, but an even better night learning more about the people and their customs and feeling really comfortable.

thimun06.jpegOn my final day I had free time to explore the downtown area called City Center as well as the Islamic Museum of Art. Much of Islamic art is deeply imbedded in the work of calligraphers who used different scripts and methods of decorating surfaces. It's the repetition and symmetry of calligraphy that made it into an important component of pattern. Sometimes the decorative effect overtook the meaning of the words, creating illegible but calligraphesque decoration. It's the patterns in the wood carvings, the written pages of the Koran, tiles and plates, and textiles that I am so drawn too. 

After the museum I met up with several of the press team members who wanted to go out to the market and shoot with me. We had dinner together and they then joined me, in front of my computer to watch the Bombers victory over Osage.

Before I close with a video slide show the press team put together for the closing ceremony, I want to share a few thoughts: Travel and enjoy the adventure. If I believed everything I read in advance of this trip and listened to all the nightly news and reports on the Middle East I never would have left home. We live in a world where the news sets our agenda and often builds irrational fears in us that, when left unexamined, can lead to so many stereotypes and prejudices and biases. I fell in love with these kids in Qatar. They were so wonderful to work with, so generous and kind and appreciative of the lessons I brought them.  I hope next year some of you, with the support of the administration, will be able to go on this trip with me to meet them and learn from them as I did."thimun07.jpeg