- Nia Alexander Campbell
Patriotism in Qatar
Visual representations of patriotism in Qatar
My thoughts on why there’s such an emphasis on national identity
Last thoughts about patriotism in Qatar vs. the U.S.
A signature board outside of a mall in Doha.
You ever seen jokes about American patriotism? Those over the top images of eagles and guns and fireworks and men wearing American flag bandanas with reflections of the American flag in their aviator sunglasses, standing proudly in front of an American flag? That’s what a lot of us cynical citizens think about when we reflect on our nation’s national pride . . . it’s like a running joke, especially in 2018.
National pride in Qatar, however, didn’t have that vibe. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure lots of Qatari nationals have their own inside jokes about their country’s patriotism, but there’s then that’s thing: They’re inside jokes. You may see a few lighthearted memes on a student’s Instagram account, or overhear a quick joke amongst buds sitting in the mall, but you’re not going to see someone with the Qatari equivalent of a sarcastic ‘Merica shirt, you know? What you will see, however, are a lot of images, symbols, social customs, and even a few laws that express a clear appreciation and preservation for everything Qatari.
So, how about we talk about some highlights:
Visual Representations of Patriotism
The oryx sculpture at the Intercontinental Hotel
All the symbols
Oryxes. An oryx is the country’s national animal and pops up regularly, either as sculptures or sometimes cartoons (advertising things for kids or PSA’s). Most notably, it’s the logo for Qatar airways.
Falcons. Falconry and the Arabian Peninsula go hand in hand. Qatar has a falcon souq in Souq Waqif and the falconry building near Katara is shaped like a falcon hood.
Pearls. Qatar used to be a pearl-diving community. It’s why there are still pearl shops in Souq Waqif, why there’s a giant oyster sculpture on the Corniche, and why they named an entire part of town “The Pearl”.
Dallahs. A dallah is a traditional Arabic coffee pot used to prepare and serve Arabic coffee (known qahwa or gahwa). It’s more than just a coffee pot, though; it’s used in ritual and symbolizes hospitality. There’s a dallah sculpture on the Corniche.
There’s also the 5/6 Interchange monument, which is . . . well, I don’t know what the heck that thing is, but I’ve read that it symbolizes modernity and Qatar’s goals for the future. It’s the tallest monument in Qatar and was only just completed in December 2017, a few weeks before I arrived in the country. It’s essentially a dramatic gate you have to drive under as you enter West Bay or Lusail, both areas hearts of Qatar’s growing identity. It’s also on a postage stamp! Here’s a link with plenty of pictures that talks about it in more detail.
All the museums
The pigeon tower at Katara Cultural Village. Pigeons also go hand-in-hand with Middle Eastern culture, though I'm not yet sure why.
There’s Mathaf (the Arab Museum of Modern Art), the Museum of Islamic Art, the Msheireb Museums, (composed of four very reflective Qatari heritage houses), Katara Cultural Village and, of course, the National Museum of Qatar. All of these, and a handful more, are part of the Qatar Museum Authority, an organization that has been described as a “cultural instigator”. I think that’s an excellent descriptor because when you look at all the museums mashed together, it creates a well-rounded idea of how Qatar wants to be perceived and of their idea of their own identity & values.
All the flags
The Qatari flag was everywhere. Fabric flags, digital flags, and flags in the form of cute & bubbly stickers showed up on cars, buildings, screens outside of grocery stores, and many, many more places. The presence of the flag wound up really striking me for a few reasons:
I realized I had only ever really seen the American flag in fabric form. Seeing it on things like projection screens or barbershop windows or bumper stickers just wasn’t as common in America as it was in Qatar.
The American flags I was used to seeing in the U.S. only popped up in places like public schools or government buildings, and came in the form of the ridiculously huge ones seen on car lots, the itty bitty ones you can buy from craft stores during 4th of July sales, and the mid-sized ones jammed into the flag poles of suburban houses beside off-season “Spring has sprung” or “happy holidays” flags, the stars & striped faded by the sun alongside images of Easter bunnies and holly.
I have no idea what the colors of the American flag are. I mean sure, it’s red, white, and blue—like a hundred other countries—but the Qatari flag is specifically Pantone 1955 C, a shade of maroon.
In fact, I found the history of the Qatari flag to be pretty interesting, so here’s a quick Wikipedia article about it if you’re as curious as I was.
The Emir’s face on everything
Images of the Emir, and sometimes the Father Emir, can be seen on/in . . .
Stickers (bumper, window, and paper)
Public signature boards from construction projects
Mini mart windows
And many, may more places. Here’s what I mean:
Finding images of the Emir is like a game of eye-spy sometimes
You may have noticed the black & white portrait of the Emir in a lot of those photos. Well, that’s the graphic, the one that is replicated over and over again (for practical, aesthetic, and social reasons, if you ask me, but that’s a different conversation). The original was designed Qatari artist Ahmed bin Majed Almaadheed; here’s a link to an article about it (and sorry in advance for all the ads, yikes). Other likenesses of the Emir (and Father Emir) come in the form of photographs (both official and slightly casual), paintings, mildly cartoony drawings, or whatever medium fits the atmosphere of a specific space (like the LEGO brick “painting” of the Emir in the LEGO Store).
But why such an emphasis on national identity?
There are a few reasons for this, like . . .
The fact Qatar is 90% expatriate
When your nationality is only 10% of the total population of your country, I can understand why there’d be such a push to preserve that heritage. However, I also feel like there’s two sides to this idea, and it’s an idea that can get very complicated very fast. Instead of trying to flesh out either side of the argument, though, I’m just going to pose a few questions and you can reflect on the topic yourself, okay? Consider it food for thought:
Isn’t it reasonable to not want your minority culture gobbled up by a majority?
Isn’t there a beauty in cultures blending?
Isn’t there an importance in tradition?
Can cultural evolution really be avoided in the global community the 21st century provides?
If you feel one culture is oppressing your own, isn’t it fair to not want to assimilate?
Historically, where does the development of cultural identity start and stop? Isn’t it fair to say that cultures are still evolving?
When you invite hundreds of other cultures to share your country, you’re essentially creating a melting pot. Can a blending of culture (everything from languages, to traditions, to religions, to dress, to bloodlines) really be avoided when your country serves as an international hub?
It’s true that if a Qatari woman has children with a non-Qatari man, those kids won’t be citizens of Qatar. does that count as preserving national identity? Could this be likened to eugenics?
What if a culture’s traditions are narrowminded or harmful? Should a culture still fight to preserve them? Better yet, who determines if they’re narrowminded or harmful?
Where is the line between culture, religion, and law? To preserve one, must you preserve the other? How does this work when there are other people subjected to your culture, but not a part of it?
What if your culture is known for being attacked and marginalized by the bigger culture that’s simultaneously trying to smother you? Shouldn’t you fight to prove that your culture is more than the negativity that is broadcasted? Shouldn’t you fight to showcase the beauty in your culture, history, religion, and traditions?
What does it mean to only be a citizen if you have a male-dominated Qatari bloodline? At what point in history did Qatari blood become Qatari blood?
What does it mean to have a country full of expats and not ever let any of them be citizens? Even they were born there, educated there, worked there, etc.?
Like I said, it’s huge, complicated topic, my friends.
You know about the embargo, yeah? Also known as the 2017 GCC crisis? Well, in short, in June 2017 many of Qatar’s neighbors decided to stop dealing with Qatar. Among other things, this meant that Qatari citizens couldn’t enter these countries, Qatari planes couldn’t fly above these country’s airspace, and trade between these countries and Qatar ceased.
Keeping that last point in mind, Qatar had to reconfigure a lot of where it got it’s things, especially food. What could once be shipped from the UAE now had to be shipped from elsewhere or grown in the country itself, and having that Qatar is literally a dessert, shipping seemed to be the best bet. However, after the embargo, Qatari farm production boomed and products with stickers that said “Made in Qatar” took on a new life. It meant more than “locally grown”, it meant identity, patriotism, and a slick middle finger to all the countries they had originally been importing food from. Here's a nice article that touches on some of this.
What can I say, I had fun with this little guy.
What about other residents’ national identity? With Qatar so passionate about their own identity, I couldn’t help but wonder how okay it was for the other 90% of its residents to express their cultural identities. Well, in short, it’s okay to express it as long as you aren’t overbearing about it. Wear your cultural dress, speak your language, practice your religion . . . just don’t go out trying to recruit Qataris to your way of life.
The Emir’s face everywhere. As an American, if I told you that images of the government’s head leader were plastered in nearly every public space, you may envision an overbearing totalitarian monarchy, or perhaps an eerie “Big Brother's watching” kind of thing. To experience it in Qatar, though, I didn’t get either of those vibes—and though I’m sure there’s some excellent PR work at play—I still think that a considerable number of people genuinely like their country’s leadership and are okay with being reminded of it all the time.
The first time I saw this sort of visual language—the act of putting pictures of your country’s leader everywhere—was when I visited Morocco eight months prior to my arrival in Qatar. Then, to see this same sort of visual language in Qatar (but multiplied by 100), I couldn’t help but be struck by it because, as an American, we just don’t have a history of pasting images of our head(s) of state everywhere. However, when I thought about it, I realized Americans actually do have this tradition, only we like to do it on a more personal or informal level. For example, I remember quite vividly seeing images of the Obamas in peoples’ houses during that administration; the images weren’t stoic or even framed—sometimes they were just photos from an outdated calendar attached to the fridge with a magnet—but the fact still remains that images of the president and often his family were kept in peoples’ home.
A respected leader. By 2018 I had experienced two years of an administration that many people didn’t seem to want, an administration that was increasingly unpopular for a new reason seemingly every week, and an administration that few people I knew even respected. Leaving that environment and entering a country that, if nothing else, seemed to genuinely respect their leader was unexpectedly refreshing.
Everyone is related. I had Qatar described to me as “incestuous” and at first, I thought it was a joke. I later realized that they were being serious; a lot of Qatari nationals are blood related to each other somewhere within the past few generations.
That said, Google the House of Al Thani when you get a chance; that’s the royal family of Qatar and there’s a lot of people in it (and many of them are important people like kings, princesses, diplomats, heads of states, etc.). That said, I’m also halfway convinced that I spent my study abroad semester in school with a princess.
The idea of a melting pot. You know how the U.S. is considered a “melting pot” because all our cultures sort of blend together? Well, in keeping with that metaphor, I’d consider Qatar more of a chunky stew, the sort of place where each individual person from each individual country keeps their identity without ever blending with other ones.
The preservation of culture. Despite the debate I mentioned earlier about where the line is when it comes to cultural preservation, I found it super cool to be in a country that was so passionate about cultural preservation. I think I found it so cool because we don’t have that in the U.S.; we’ve been a melting pot for a few centuries now and nearly everyone is part of mainstream American culture and a sub-culture. Then, often when there’s a group of people in the U.S. talking about preserving culture, it’s either because their culture is being genuinely attacked (like many indigenous populations) or because they are scared of their culture being overrun by “the other” (usually minorities). It’s a mess. And thus, it was interesting to see how the history of Qatar in contrast to the U.S. influenced the way cultural preservation initiatives were approached, advertised, and upkept.
Qatar National Day. It is similar to U.S. Independence Day except it’s celebrated in December and wasn’t established until 2007. Here, just skim through this Wikipedia article.
Their national anthem. Maybe it’s just because I’d only ever heard the U.S. national anthem, but when I heard the Qatari national anthem play for the first time, I was highly entertained. It’s so much more energetic than the American one! Take a listen.