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  • Nia Alexander Campbell

Widespread Dust

What You’ll Find in This Post:

  • The weather in Qatar: Heat, cold, wind, and rain

  • The environment in Qatar: Animals, plant life, and beaches


I looked at the weather report one morning and all it said was “widespread dust”.

What does that even mean? I thought.

Well, this is what it meant:

This is “widespread dust”. It’s like fog . . . but with sand.

Oh yeah, the weather forecast in Qatar could sometimes be a bit more than “sunny”, “cloudy”, and “rainy”. So, what was the weather like? Better yet, what was the environment like overall? And how did it compare to Richmond? That’s what we’re going to talk about today! This post will be simple, and—honestly—might be a little dry, but I’ve added in plenty of photos that will hopefully ease the conversation about wind, sand, trees, and bugs.

The Weather

So, about the heat . . .

That grey-brown haze coloring the sky is dust and it made the sun look more intense than usual. It looked like God had hole-punched the sky, like a perfectly circular portal to another realm was hanging above my apartment.

Qatar is hot as hell, but not all the time. Yeah, I was surprised to walk out of my apartment in the morning and have it already be 90° F, but by the evening—like, 7pm type evening—it was tolerable. Even still, the blistering desert heat didn’t really start until late April. The hottest day I experienced was in early May, the sun boiling over to a whopping 110° F by noon. As the summer creeps in, though, Qatar can get up to about 120° F.

Qatar isn’t a humid heat, though . . . or at least, it wasn’t the sort of humidity I was used to. Statistically, Doha was more humid on average than Richmond and it kept that high humidity throughout most of the year, but it didn't feel that way. When the Doha humidity got up to 94% in January, it wasn’t the thick, damp, hard-to-breathe sort of humidity I had experienced in Richmond all my life (and that discomfort happened when the Richmond humidity was as low as 60%). In Qatar, though, I met a good amount of people voicing frustration over the humidity, but to me those “humid” days felt super refreshing compared to Richmond.

Instead, I thought Qatar had a dry heat, the driest heat I’d ever experienced. It was the kind of heat that sucked the water straight from your body, the kind of heat where my Richmond hydration habits just weren’t enough to combat it. I remember walking from my apartment to a car parked right outside the residence hall—a leisurely 10-minute walk from my bedroom to the vehicle—but by the time I got to the car, I felt faint. It was the most dehydrated I had ever been in life, and it freaked me out that the symptoms sprung up so suddenly. I didn’t pass out, but I do remember being too weak and confused to tell the driver—my friend—what was going on. I also remember my mind wandering in that weird way that happens when you’re about to fall asleep . . . I remember thinking about bananas for no reason. Once I started sipping on some water, though, I came back to life and by the time we reached our destination, I was good to go.

I think the temperature that evening was around 90° F.

A few people warned me about the dangers of the heat in Qatar, and I did my best to defend myself against its wrath, but the country threw me some climate curveballs that I wasn’t ready for.

But does it ever get cold?

You ever look at a snowy sky and all that’s visible is a solid grey cloud blanket? Meanwhile you walk through white streets and get repeatedly stung in the face by ice crystals? Well, that’s what it was like in Qatar when the wind picked up, except instead of snow and ice, everything was sand.

I mean, that’s the thing about deserts, right? They get super hot during the day, then super cold at night? Well, it did get cold-ish during evenings in January & February, but at the worst it was maybe 55 degrees. Statistically, Qatar can drop down into the 40’s during winter nights, but while I was there it usually hung around 60° F. To me this wasn’t cold; after all, Richmond winters can easily drop below freezing and it doesn’t start warming up until late March. That said, I thought the winter weather in Qatar was wonderful, but I had some people voice their concern over things like me waiting outside in the cold or not wearing a heavier jacket. I know they meant well, but I also know I had a confused look on my face every time they referred to 62° F as “cold”.

In their defense, though, Qatar could have some serious wind chills that could definitely make anyone feel frigid . . . or dusty.

Ah yes, the wind

The wind whipping my twist-out in the desert.

No one prepared me for the wind in Qatar. Not once had I even considered the wind to be a relevant factor for living in Qatar. After all, It’s not like Qatar was prone to hurricanes and tornado watches like Richmond. There wasn’t any danger of, I dunno, the power going out or trees falling over; the place was sunny and sandy, wind didn’t have anything to do with anything.

Except that it did.

Qatar can get crazy stupid windy, windier than any place I’d ever been. Richmond may have its fair share of blustery days and summer storms, but it’s still nothing nothing like my wind experience in Qatar. Come to find out, deserts in general are notoriously windy; it’s got something to do with low air pressure & warm air rising as cool air sinks. In the winter, when I first got there, the winds weren’t awful; I read that the average was only 9 mph (for comparison, Richmond’s average is about 7 mph). However, by the time spring started to roll in, the winds rolled in with it, and by the summer they could reach a terrifying 60 mph. Winds like that are what create sandstorms.

While I was there, though, there weren’t any huge sandstorms in Doha, only some dusty days. However, the wind was still strong enough to audibly whip my clothes around and toss sand crystals in my eyes. I’d like to imagine, though, that the wind made my walk across the street from the residence hall to VCUQ look extraordinarily cinematic. . . everyone loves the images a lone hero making a dramatic trek through the elements all in the pursuit of knowledge, right?

So, there’s never ever any rain? Ever?

This is an unedited photograph of the QF Building. You see how the whole scene looks desaturated? I’m guessing a combination of the dryness and the bright sun had a habit of sucking the color out of the country.

I mean, it is a desert. By definition it doesn’t get much rain per year.

Of the four months I was there, it only rained once (if those twenty minutes of midday misting can really be called “rain”). When it happened, I quickly became very excited. I thought it looked beautiful—magical—to watch the rain quietly dampen the desert outside my studio window.

A few months after I left Qatar, though, is when the real rain came. In Doha, streets were submerged, ground floors flooded, canopies collapsed, and they even had to close school in Education City for a few days until repairs could be made. The problem wasn’t that Doha had been hit with a lot of rain, though; the problem was that Qatar didn’t have a good drainage system. After all, they only get about three inches of rain per year—and it really only rains in the fall & winter—so it makes sense that a highly sophisticated drainage system wouldn’t be part of the city.

The Environment


This is a somewhat dramatic photo of an Indian myna creeping outside my window.

Just because Qatar was a desert didn’t mean it was completely void of animal life. There were still some wildlife hanging around, but it was all very different than what I was used to seeing in Richmond.

For one thing, there weren’t any squirrels. That sounds bizarre to specifically point out, but imagine: For 20 years squirrels had been a part of my living environment just like flies, wasps, deer, rabbits, turkey buzzards, butterflies, cardinals, raccoons, turtles, possums, ants, spiders . . . these critters were all a part of Richmond’s back—they could show up in any neighborhood, park, or schoolyard—they were like the painted backdrop in a school play.

And suddenly I had moved to Qatar and all those things were gone, or at least, most of them were.

I saw some ants, some houseflies, one spider, and one silverfish, but all those bugs were a lot smaller than the ones in Richmond. I didn’t have to contend with yellow jackets or wolf spiders or spider crickets—I didn’t even see any mosquitoes—and that was just . . . odd. I wasn’t saddened by the lack of creepy crawlies, but it was very strange to feel like the whole country was bug-less.

And other animals? Those were pretty sparse too, but you’ve got to remember I spent most of my time around Doha, a very urban environment. Most animals live in the desert (in the same way that most animals in Richmond stick to the forests & countryside). The ones that did hang around the city were typically birds, cats, and maybe a few lizards. When I began researching what sorts of animals lived in Qatar, though, I remember thinking that Qatar had a lot of doppelgängers to the animals I was used to. We have red foxes, they have sand foxes; we have big-eared bats, they have long-eared bats; we have common starlings, they have common mynas (a type of starling).

And to see things like birds or salamanders behave exactly like the birds and salamanders I had seen in Virginia, but to also know that I had never seen this version of that animal before, made for a really odd Through the Looking Glass, Black Mirror, Twilight Zone sort of experience. It was like watching something that was normal, but slightly off, as though a puppet master had put me to sleep and crafted an artificial world based on abstract echoes of my own memory, hoping I wouldn’t notice something was amiss.

I know, that’s a little dramatic, but hear me out: Those four months in Qatar was the longest time I had ever spent outside of Richmond. This new environment hit me hard, you guys.

Hey, but here’s some fun facts I picked up! Qatar had the highest concentration of camels in the Middle East, migratory birds like Qatar because of the coastline, their national animal is the oryx (similar to a gazelle), and there’s this thing called a dugong that likes to hang around the Persian Gulf . . . dugongs are like manatees.

Greenery . . . well, green-ish

I have a thing for yellow flowers.

Like much of the environment in Qatar, the vegetation is very desaturated compared to what’s around in Virginia. Much of the rich greens I was used to seeing in trees, bushes, grass, & weeds were replaced by a variety of dull greenish-greys. Many of the flowers, were still bright, which made for some striking contrast, but not as much as seeing bright orange pumpkins growing in a field or ripe strawberries poking out from under leaves. Oh, but speaking of farms, Qatar didn’t have many of those. Granted, Richmond only had three notable ones within twenty minutes of the city, but that’s still more than what was around Doha . . . Qatar is a desert, after all, so I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised to see a lone greenhouse out in the desert, though!

You see what I mean about the greens being washed out? And the high contrast? This bush was in front of Texas A&M.

Then there’s the trees. January in Richmond means seeing huge bare trees and leftover leaves from autumn littering neighborhoods. In Qatar, though, the trees not only had all their leaves, but they also didn’t get very large; the biggest trees I saw were the palm trees by the corniche. Qatar does have the mangroves, about an hour away from Doha, but those aren’t thick, swampy, & shady like the Florida mangroves . . . you can still tell you’re in the desert while at the Qatari mangroves. This was a big difference compared to Richmond, in that driving 20 minutes from the heart of the city in either direction will give you plenty of examples of mini forests and some swamps if you pay attention.

Similarly, there weren’t many grassy areas in Qatar outside of parks or recreational areas like the Green Spine in Education City. This was different from Richmond in that we have lots of different grass in lots of different places; we have tall grass, cut grass, grass with wildflowers, grass with weeds, grass with clovers, grass with wild onions, grass in the parks, grass around campus, grass in neighborhoods, grass along highways, random fields of grass where deer like to hang out . . . grass.

Qatar, however, was mostly sand and concrete. The only place where grass occurred naturally, as far as I could tell, was the desert, but desert grass is dry and sparse. It poked out from the ground like Moses’ hair in The Prince of Egypt. You know, when he got buried after the sandstorm and the only thing poking through the surface was his hair, and the camel slobbered all over it thinking it was grass? That’s what all the desert grass reminded me of! I know, I know, that was a very specific 1998 reference, but The Prince of Egypt was my family’s first DVD and I watched it over and over as though it was a new movie every time, so each scene is permanently seared into my memory in vivid detail.

But admit it, that was a good comparison.

And then there’s the beaches

Okay, so this isn’t a beach, this is the Corniche. And its nighttime, so you can’t see the green-blue of the water. But you can see the stillness, which made the water very calming to look at.

I was so excited, so fascinated with the beaches in Qatar that my friend couldn’t help but ask what the heck beaches were like in Richmond to make this pile of sand and water any different from another pile of sand and water. Well, Richmond itself doesn’t have any true beaches that connect to an ocean or sea. Instead, we have a large river with category 4 rapids and a few gentle areas that we like to call “beaches” when there’s enough space on the shore for people to lay down. Otherwise, Richmond is about an hour and a half from the Atlantic coastline, which is where the “real” beaches are.

As far as beaches go, I had experienced Buckroe Beach off and on throughout my childhood and Virginia Beach once, and I’d also been to Belle Isle a few times (if rocks by river rapids count as a beach). In short, my experience with beaches was few and far between and all those experiences included some combination of cold water, sudden drop offs, washed up jellyfish, choppy waters, and seaweed . . . lots of seaweed. There used to be seashells, but somewhere around 2013 they all seemed to disappear, and I remember the water being a steely blue-gray-brown instead of the blues and greens I saw on television. I thought that maybe the water color had something to do with pollution, or the brackish water from the bay, or maybe that was just what the Atlantic and its tributaries looked like, but then I went to Morocco.

Morocco touches the other side of the Atlantic and wow was that ocean blue. It was the same shade of blue-green that comes in the Crayola box, and even though I only saw it from the window in the back of a minibus, I was mesmerized. That moment struck me so hard that when I got to Qatar and saw their water up close at the Corniche, I couldn’t stop staring. It was so blue, and so gentle; I didn’t even get motion sickness from being on a dhow boat. The first time I saw a beach in Qatar, though, was outside Katara Cultural Center. That beach, however, was apparently private and required paid entry, so I once again had to observe the blue waters from a distance.

But then one night in March, walking around Souq Al Wakrah, I got to see a foreign beach up close for the first time. I remember scooping up some water and being surprised to see it was so clear; I could see my fingers straight through the mini puddle of my cupped hands, almost like I had run the water from a faucet. I even took a flashlight to it because, evidently, part of my brain just didn’t comprehend what I was looking at. The water wasn’t muddy or murky, and the waves didn’t crash into the shore with unexpectedly large gusts every so often. There wasn’t any seaweed, or jellyfish, or jagged rocks to step on . . . the water wasn’t even cold.

I thought Qatar was beautiful

There was a blue moon while I was in Qatar. I love me some astronomical phenomena.

Qatar had some of the prettiest sunsets and clearest night skies I had ever seen. In fact, I thought all the weather and environments around Doha were beautiful if only because most of it was something I had never seen before. Don’t get me wrong, getting hit with gusts of sand or experiencing the worst heat of my life wasn’t great, but it was still new and interesting. Like I mentioned earlier, the four months I spent in Qatar was the longest time I had ever spent outside of the U.S., Virginia, and Richmond, so everything about Qatar’s environment—even the rough stuff—played a huge part in shaping my experience.

Oh, but one more thing!

While we're on the subject of weather, I've got a fun fact for you, my friends.

I left the States in January 2018, hours before a big winter storm hit the East coast. It wasn't just any storm, though, oh no, this storm was significant enough to get its own Wikipedia page. That's right, I left the country right before a bomb cyclone covered the airport, my hometown, and even bits of Florida in snow and ice. This great escape isn't my fun fact though, no, my fun fact that the storm revealed something really cool in Alabama.

Alright, so from what I understand that mega-storm created some low tides near Mobile, Alabama, some of the lowest tides that area had ever seen. With the waters so low, suddenly there was a visible shipwreck poking out from beneath the mud. In May 2019, it was confirmed that ship was the Clotilda, the last known U.S. slave ship to bring slaves from Africa to the United States, about 50 years after the U.S. had made trans-Atlantic slave trading illegal (check out the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807).

You see, that was a totally cool fun fact, right?


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