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Dispatches from Doha: A Whirlwind Arabian Odyssey

A look at NU-Q through the eyes of those visiting from the Evanston campus

Saturday, May 5 – 3 p.m.

Some like it hot: A Northwestern University delegation of more than 50 left Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on a cool, drizzly Saturday – split into several groups on different airlines -- for the roughly 24-hour journey to Doha. Many had done this trip before, some of them multiple times. For Provost Daniel Linzer, this one makes it about a dozen visits since 2008. Others, like me, are first-timers. After a six-hour layover for our group in the Frankfurt airport -- where many of us were delighted to find a place to take showers in a waiting area -- all of us reached Doha by Sunday night. The heat of the Arabian Peninsula hit us like a blast furnace when we exited the airport into the desert night. The high temperatures averaged 110 degrees during our stay, twice as hot as the weather we left behind in Chicago. And it’s not even summer yet, when it gets much hotter with horrendous humidity.

Most useless article of clothing I packed: A rain jacket - for a desert land. Really? What was I thinking?

Distance between Chicago and Doha: 7,110 miles.

Quote: Candy Lee, professor, clinical, journalism editorial, at Medill, on her first trip to Doha: “There’s a sense now that the two campuses -- Evanston and Doha -- are even more connected. And we want to get people used to the notion of building these connections. I’m excited to be going. Qatar has this intrinsic wealth, and they’ve decided to use it to build monuments, institutions, art and education. It’s really remarkable.”

Sunday, May 6 – 9 p.m.

If you build it, they will come: Doha is an architect’s dream. The skyline bristles with new, ultra-modern high-rises with unique and spectacular designs, from one that looks like a plump rocket cloaked in Islamic-style latticework to another that resembles a tapered vase with angled glass. They line Al-Corniche, the stunning crescent waterfront promenade, and many light up in different colors by night, for better or for worse. The skyline changes so rapidly with new building that it often looks noticeably different to Wildcat travelers who return again after only a few months away. NU-Q Associate Professor of Journalism Mary Dedinsky can watch the construction workers from her 39th floor apartment in the West Bay area. Avoiding the heat, they work all night on the towering skeletons of skyscrapers growing up around her building. A new mosque is being built across the street. In the small hours of the morning, you can hear the faint din of construction work across the otherwise quiet and dark stillness. By day, the sight of construction cranes is ubiquitous in Doha, with an estimated $60 billion in projects now under way. The irony is that many of the new buildings are standing largely vacant and others have only a few tenants. But there are high hopes that more of the world will come here and occupy them when Qatar hosts the World Cup in 2022.

A fast-changing skyline: Qatar’s average growth rate is 12.5 percent a year in the construction market during this decade -- a rate that rivals or outperforms many economies in the developed world, according to a Commercialbank Capital report.

Quote: Grant Upson, director of the NU-Q Support Office, on his latest trip since last fall: “I’m ready to be surprised by the fast rate of change each time I come back. I’m looking forward to seeing all the new construction, even in Education City. The new building for NU-Q is under construction. They now have a webcam trained on it -- so the dean, Everette Dennis, and others, can check in on the progress.”

Monday, May 7 – 10 a.m.

Change is coming: NU-Q Dean Everette Dennis welcomed the visiting delegation to a briefing on the progress, projects and activities of NU-Q students today, describing himself as a kind of maitre d’ of the University’s 12th school. “We’re doing our best to project the profile of the school in the region and to make it the best in the world,” he told the assembled group in a modern auditorium in the Carnegie Mellon University building, NU-Q’s current home. Then there were presentations by NU-Q’s senior associate deans, James Schwoch for the communication program and Richard Roth for the journalism program.

Schwoch showed two short films produced by students. One was titled “A Falcon, A Revolution,” chronicling the concept of freedom through the work of a falconer training his birds in Egypt against the backdrop of the Arab Spring protests and the fall of then-President Hosni Mubarak. The other was titled “Melodic Fusion,” and it portrayed a young woman playing the piano with an overlay of graphic animation showing yellow stars erupting and swirling from the music.

Then Roth showed three news stories produced by students for The Daily Q, a broadcast news program produced by NU-Q students. The stories were topical, newsy and homegrown, including a look at challenges of food production and distribution in Qatar, an environmental piece about Qatar’s carbon footprint and early recycling efforts and a piece covering local protests against the Syrian regime’s violent crackdown on demonstrations.

Quote: Senior Associate Dean for Journalism Richard Roth: “There are different kinds of stories to tell here than there are in Evanston. The students are pushing the boundaries on what the limits of coverage can be, sometimes even more than the local media. People here are not as familiar with a free press, so the students say, ‘It’s so much easier to do journalism in the U.S. People there want their picture taken. If you turn on a camera, they want to get into the picture.’ Things are going to change here, but it will take time.”

Student research: Sara Kawas, 20, and Maaria Assami, 21, both graduating seniors from Syria and communication majors, were among NU-Q students making presentations to the visiting delegation. These two spoke about their research into Syria’s new Ugarit News, an alternative news source to the mainstream press, having major difficulties covering the uprising against the Syrian regime. The news operation depends on anonymous citizen journalists to record citizen protests and government crackdowns on their cellphones and video cameras and post them to social media, such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Entirely voluntary and often dangerous for the journalists, Ugarit News succeeded in getting the story out when foreign media were largely prevented from even entering Syria. In fact, while they built up thousands of followers on their own, Ugarit News reports were often picked up by Reuters and other mainstream news agencies and went out to millions.

Two other NU-Q students, both sophomores majoring in journalism, focused their research on the galvanizing role that the day Friday played in the Arab Spring uprisings. Asma Ajroudi, 20, from Tunisia, and Zena Al Tahhan, 18, a Palestinian from Jerusalem, made a presentation on how the Muslim day of rest and Friday prayers gave rise to ritual gatherings and spontaneous demonstrations in different countries. These, in turn, led to media events on Friday and developed into a media ritual, helping perpetuate the cause. The students found that this one day was common to all the Arab uprisings and focused on it as a “day of rage” in each. They referred to these happenings and on the media coverage of them, describing it as “A Rhizomatic Media.” The word rhizomatic stems from an approach to research that allows multiple entry and exit points in data interpretation. This media they described as a phenomenon distinguished by three factors: They were translocal, meaning they crossed borders; they were elusive, and it was often hard to predict where they would start; and they were generally antagonistic to the state and the market when they occurred.

Monday, May 7 - Noon

Student stories: Over lunch in an auditorium, five NU-Q students took seats at the front facing the delegation and told their stories of classes, media and dreams. Here are a few excerpts:

Quote: Yara Darwish, a journalism major from Qatar: “When I chose to study journalism, my parents were none too happy, because I’m a girl. For me, just being in this university alone is crossing cultural boundaries and pushing cultural stereotypes. Girls here are under the umbrella of their parents. We are brought up under their protective shell. It hasn’t changed completely, but my parents were somewhat forced to live with the idea that I am pushing some limits. My dad wanted me to study business or law or medicine. But it’s just amazing how the journalism program changed my concept and my parents’ concept of journalism.

“People are still very traditional here. You still face some difficulties. It’s our responsibility to change that. Sheikha Moza, the Emir’s wife, is initiating change here. We’re fulfilling the vision of Sheikha Moza. The older generation is still there, and we embrace the fact that they are holding on to their culture, but we are looking for change, and I love the change. I’m very ambitious, and I want to break the stereotypes and bring change.”

Quote: Ismaeel Naar, a journalism major from Bahrain: “I never got the sense I wasn’t good enough to do this work. I worked with great professors like Chris Booker (formerly on the NU-Q faculty and a member of the visiting delegation), and we learned we could do it. We study at Northwestern University, but in the foreign media, we almost never hear stories about this region from people who are from this region. The international media sometime creates the wrong perspective about the region. When [Egypt’s President] Hosni Mubarak and [Tunisia’s President] Zine Ben Ali left power, it was the first time you have ever seen a tyrant step down in this region. We understand these people because we have grown up in this region.

“You always hear about American democracy, but that may not work in this region. It may take us 20 years or 50 years, but we will decide when we’re ready, and it will be our model, it won’t be one imposed from outside. I want to tell the stories of my region. I take this very seriously. It is about creating and helping the change to help the people of this part of the world. I consider myself a child of this region. I want to be a foreign correspondent here and cover it.”

Monday, May 7 – 2 p.m.

Essence of Islam: The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is a masterpiece of architecture designed by world-renowned architect I. M. Pei, who also designed the glass pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris. The museum opened its doors in 2008 and is the result of the architect’s personal tour of the Muslim world, starting in the year 2000 and covering an area from Spain to the Mideast to Central Asia and India, to try to capture the essence of Islamic architecture. The museum distills his vision of that essence, including the asymmetrical interior revolving around the structure of four pillars and support beams styled as a pyramid with echoes of Egypt’s ancient architecture. It evokes the Arabian desert with its interplay of light and shadow, as well as the math and symmetry that I. M. Pei found. He chose its location, adjacent to but apart from the modern city, and designed it as an island on Doha Bay. “It’s an offshore water castle,” said Hannes Werner, a German architect and principal with with GaQatar architectural guided tours, leading a tour of the museum for the delegation. “It’s offshore on purpose. It’s not Qatari culture. It’s Islamic culture.”

Inside, the galleries were designed by Paris-based designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte, and they showcase a collection of Islamic art worth an estimated $1.5 billion. The museum’s brochure describes the collection as “second to none in the world in terms of importance, quality and visual impact.” It includes some of the earliest pages of the Koran to survive and some exquisite glass, tile and ceramic pieces dating back to the 7th century CE and covering more than a millennium of Islamic history, not to mention amazing jewelry, ancient candlesticks and stunning antique carpets.

Call to prayer? There’s an app for that: Erin Libby of the Doha Support Office helps Muslim students and others at NU-Q keep track of the times of Muslim prayers and how to find the Qiblah, or the direction they should turn to pray, toward the Kaaba in Saudi Arabia. She uses a popular mobile application that can be found at the following link: “It’s called Muslim Pro,” she says. “It tells you when the call to prayer is and where Mecca is -- wherever you are.”

Tuesday, May 8 – 10 a.m.

Something old, something new: The juxtaposition of ancient and modern in Doha is striking to a first-time visitor. This is a stark, dry, unforgiving land the Bedouin roamed for hundreds of years, their tracks erased by the desert. The first hospital wasn’t built until 1959. Qataris still hold on to their traditions, including falconry and camel races, though the jockeys are now sometimes robots controlled remotely. The Bedu settled near the coast and became pearl divers and traders, though the pearl trade largely dried up decades ago. Modern Qatar is still trading, and old-style wooden dhows still ply the Gulf, but now the economy is built on oil and gas wealth and the ambition to be a world player. Its leaders have pushed for modernization and promoted education, social welfare and tourism. The streets are filled with expensive late-model cars, especially SUVs, and gas is cheap -- roughly, a jaw-dropping $1 a gallon. Amid the local shops, hookah cafes, carpet merchants and labyrinthine souks, familiar western business names are everywhere -- Federal Express, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Honda and The Gap, to name a few -- their signs printed in English and Arabic. Among those names was the Doha Grand Hyatt, where the Northwestern delegation stayed.

Vegas in the Arabian desert?: We mistook one destination as a namesake for the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, at first, when a group of us on a delegation tour were taken to see the famed Villagio mall in Doha. Easy mistake to make. The mall is an amazing sight -- with a Venetian-style décor, right down to the indoor canals, blue-painted ceiling resembling sky, Italian architectural facades and real gondolas imported from Venice -- not unlike the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. There are no gambling casinos in the mall, but there are plenty of brand-name stores, an amusement park with thrill rides, Go Karts, Laser Wars and bowling. A large group of women in black abayas were clustered around the entrance when we passed, watching their children shriek as they dropped precipitously on one gravity-defying ride. Did I mention the indoor ice skating rink? It is home to the Flying Camels, the Doha Ice Skating Club. Like a high-end mall in the States -- and more.

What strikes a newcomer is also the great disparity between rich and poor areas of the city, which is filled with migrant workers from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and the Philippines, among other nations, who help keep the service economy running and do a lot of the construction work. With extremely large natural gas reserves, more than 5 percent of the world’s supply, Qatari citizens have one of the highest per capita incomes on Earth.

Quote: “If you are a Qatari citizen, you are guaranteed employment, health care and education,” noted Geoffrey Harkness, visiting assistant professor of sociology. But he said it has also fueled one of Qatar’s challenges, health issues like obesity and diabetes, among the native population.

Tuesday, May 8 – 3 p.m.

“All this noise from such a small matchbox.” - Al Jazeera: Robb Wood, special advisor to the dean and CEO at NU-Q, set up a quick visit to the famed Al Jazeera news network, founded and based in Doha, which helped drive the Arab Awakening spreading across the Mideast. The modern Al Jazeera English newsroom is a marvel of activity and technology, where people from 50 nationalities put together the news stories, newscasts and website stories that are beamed, tweeted and broadcast to the Mideast, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. There are more than 70 Al Jazeera bureaus around the world now, and the latest new language channels are opening in Sarajevo for the Balkans and one in Kiswahili for Africa. Al Jazeera has taken in interns from NU-Q already. In another building, the original Arabic-language newsroom still bustles with work and newsmakers. An interview was in progress during a tour by Erin White, broadcast editor in the office of media relations, and me. When the popular channel was launched in 1996, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak came for a visit and famously remarked, “All this noise from such a small matchbox.” Mubarak is gone from power, but Al Jazeera is still expanding.

Tuesday, May 8 – 7 p.m.

Purple Pride at the Qatar Foundation Convocation for all eight U.S. and foreign universities represented in Education City: This year, the color scheme for the group convocation was Northwestern purple in honor of NU-Q’s first graduating class. It graced the stage, the decorations and the lighting -- even the banners lining the hallways of the Qatar National Convention Centre and the campus streets showcasing students from all the different schools in Education City.

Quote: William Osborn, chairman of the Board of Trustees: “What’s been great is that I’ve been able to watch the students developing over the last four years -- because [Provost] Dan Linzer and [Vice President and General Counsel] Tom Cline and I have been coming here ever since the beginning. So it’s been wonderful seeing this first class graduate. They represent Northwestern so well, and I’m very proud of them. I think the work we’ve been doing around communication and journalism is going to be very significant -- particularly in the Arab world and here in the Middle East -- in really being able to bring the truth out and really being able to help society with inevitable change.”

Wednesday, May 9 – 9:30 a.m.

After appearing for a stand-up interview with Reuters regional television Tuesday evening before the Convocation, President Morton Schapiro did five back-to-back interviews this morning, first a video interview with Erin White for Northwestern News, and then sit-down talks with four local news outlets from Qatar: the business magazine, The Edge, and the outlets The Gulf Times, the QF [Qatar Foundation] Telegraph and Qatar Today.

Wednesday, May 9 – 3 p.m.

A last-minute shopping trip to buy souvenirs, scarves and jewelry for our families and friends back home almost ended in heartbreak for Erin and me,because we arrived at the souk mid-afternoon when almost every shop was closed during the quiet part of the day. Who knew? The souk usually bustles with activity in the evening when it’s cooler, we learned. But we were lucky, and the shops began reopening in time to grab some last-minute presents, including some timely ones for Mother’s Day.

Quote: Erin White, broadcast editor: “It was almost a shopping disaster. We raced through there grabbing gifts from the few shops that were open. I’m not really sure what I ended up buying -- but I’m sure my friends and family will love it just the same.”

Wednesday, May 9

Reflecting on NU-Q’s first commencement and the importance of its journalism and communications programs:

Quote: Morton Schapiro, president: “Her Highness, Sheikha Moza [bint Nasser], decided she wanted to have western-style media, communication and journalism skills taught here. Look at the work we have done here on film with no limitations and at the journalistic freedom our students have had. Sheikha Moza wanted us to teach the same level of skills here that we teach in Evanston. It’s amazing. I’m really happy that we’re doing journalism, communication and media here at NU-Q because this is a region where they need these skills.”

Quote: Jay Walsh, vice president for research: “It struck me listening to the students here that in the United States everyone’s worried that traditional journalism is dying, and, yet, here you have a campus with students who see it as opening up in their region It’s the future.”

Thursday, May 10 – 1:30 a.m.

Coming home: After the Wednesday night commencement ceremony and a midnight-madness dash to Qatar Airport, our group boarded the Lufthansa overnight flight to Frankfurt. We had a quick snack, and most of us slept on the leg to Europe. The layover was four hours this time, and the time change kept daylight with us, once we landed in Germany. So the trip home felt easier, though it still took nearly 24 hours door to door for some of us. 

Thursday, May 10 – 1 p.m.

Taxi reflections: On the taxi ride from O’Hare International Airport to Evanston, Medill Journalism Professor Jack Doppelt, who has taught at NU-Q and worked regularly with its students, acknowledged he became a bit emotional at the commencement in Doha. 

Quote: “I was just a little teary. I really felt the actual coming out of what the intent was all about in putting a university in that part of the world. It speaks to putting young people into journalism who probably wouldn’t do it otherwise. It injects them into journalism in a place where that otherwise wouldn’t happen. Not only that, but Al Jazeera is there, and they have become increasingly more legitimate in the business. They have reporters all over the world. The potential is there to place our students all over the world.” 

Back home: I got home in time to feed my cat, drop my bags and head into the office for the afternoon -- including getting to see the final softball game played that evening by the Bad News team of University Relations and Medill staffers. Good to be home. 

Shukran, NU-Q. Thanks, for the memories and the inspiration.

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