Monthly Archives: November 2013

Celebrating

In this heterogeneous and poly-cultural expat environment, I have celebrated many different holidays with many different friends. Celebrations like that usually involve vast quantities of festive food and beverage, and correspondingly enlarged company, often consisting of guests who are not members of one’s immediate family or social circle. Additional elements include special outfits, music, dance, recitations and other actions, all of which are elements of various festive rituals.

With friends coming from backgrounds as diverse as Burma, India, Iran, Russia, Poland, England, Ireland, Israel, Scotland, Canada and the United States, I have been lucky to honour many a Water Festival, Orthodox Easter, Nowruz, Diwali, Thanksgiving, Mardi Gras, Independence Day, Pancake Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, St Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and dozens of other, equally extra-ordinary occasions.

But not every day can be a holiday – not even in the cosmopolitan, international Doha. Or, can it? I have recently undertaken some serious research into this matter and here are the fruits of my labour (of leisure).

According to Nonsensopedia, a Polish website dedicated to absurd humour, every day is a holiday, in many cases a multiple one, too. For example, the 6th of January is known to most Christians as the Epiphany, but how many people realize that only two days later, on the 8th of that month, we can celebrate Desk-Tidying Day? If your desk is a mess and you have missed the special annual day for putting it in order, you might as well leave it till next year. Remember to make a special occasion of it, bring doughnuts, salmon canapés or rice crackers to work to share with colleagues…The 8-hour-long tediousness of office slog will soon disappear as if by magic.

I hope I won’t upset anyone too much by mentioning that the Day of Mutual Adoration is long gone this year (it was on the 13th of January). However, it seems that celebrating it just once a year may not be enough for many of us – so, why not have it again and again, for example, on the second Monday of every month?

Next, in the very short month of February, come days such as Ditch-Digging Day on the 3rd, the International Cat Day on the 17th and, finally, wait for it, the Day of Sleeping in Public Places on the 26th (personally, I would prefer to have this particular celebration moved to a warmer month…). However, rather confusingly, other Polish sources (Gazeta Lubuska) claim that on the same day, the 26th, is the Blondes-Greeting Day. Those of you who did not manage to greet a blonde on the 26th of February this year, please, put your special salutations on hold until next February.

In comparison, March appears a bit dull – it includes occasions such as the International Day of Civil Defence, International Women’s Day, International Water Day, International Theatre Day, etc., all well known and endorsed even by the United Nations, always eager to celebrate on a global scale. There is, however, one special day in March that I think many will be happy to honour: the 12th of March is the official Day of a Nap at Work. I imagine the length of the nap will vary from country to country and culture to culture, but hope all embrace it equally enthusiastically.

In April, we have an interesting fusion of three different occasions on the same day (the 5th): it is simultaneously the Day of Polite Driving, the Day Without Make-up and the Day of Trees. I can’t imagine how some people might want to celebrate this combo: slowly and respectfully driving themselves to the woods, un-made-up, to hug an oak or a beech?

In May, there is a day devoted to washing cars on the 19th (I missed it!) and the International (yes!) Day of Washing-up Liquid the day after. Don’t ask…

On the 1st of June we have both the International Milk Day as well as Bread Roll Day. In Eastern European countries, such as Poland, it also used to be celebrated as the International Day of the Child – in the good old communist times, that is. As children, we did not care about its international status, but quite enjoyed a day free of school. As adults we may want to dip our bread roll in milk. Or not.

Soon after that, a more sombre occasion takes place: the 11th of June is to commemorate Those Trampled to Death While Dancing. But on the heels of sadness, in rushes a more cheerful day dedicated to Nail Stylists (12 June) and immediately after, on the 13th of the month, the Day of Good Advice, when you can dispense it to your relatives, friends, neighbours and colleagues all day long, just as you normally do, but maybe in a more festive (forceful?) way.

July is a month of summer holidays, so even ordinary days can be fêted as special. Thus, the 8th of July is the Day of Nonsensical Holidays, the 9th honours An Average Day and, finally, the 12th if the Day of a Feast, any feast, as long as it has not been celebrated on another occasion.

In August, we can rejoice in Mustard Day festivities on the 6th and, even more appropriately, have a ball on the Day of the Mosquito on the 20th, presumably by swatting a festively large number of the little buggers.

As we approach the autumnal gloom, we can cheer ourselves up on the 5th of September by celebrating the Day of Fairy Tale Creatures, on the 8th – the Day of Good News and, at the same time, the Day of a Dreamer. Then, we have the Day of Beauty (the 9th), and then the Day Without a Car (the 22nd) when we walk to work or stay at home instead. Lastly, the Day of a Hypochondriac comes at the very end of the month, on the 30th. Personally, I celebrate it much more often than just once a year by drinking a larger-than-usual amount of curative drinks.

In October, again every day marks something very important to celebrate, but the most remarkable feasts seem to be the World Day of a Postal Stamp (9 October), Day of Coming Out of The Closet (11 Oct), The World Day of Statistics, Day Without Socks On, and Day of the Bike, on the 20th, 21st and 24th, respectively. All of them quite irresistible, each in its own way!

The November Days of Cheap Wine (the 4th) and the Hedgehog (the 10th) are followed by the rather intriguing Day of Toilets on the 19th – perhaps celebrated by more frequent than usual visits to the bog? Even more mysterious, the International Curly Day is on the 22nd of November and this year I will be observing it at an international, and, hopefully, very curly party.

Finally, December, dark, cold and tired, attempts to lift our spirits by celebrating good things in life: the Day of an Angel on the 6th (also known as St Nicholas’s Day), the Day of Virgins (the 9th), and the Day Without Swearing on the 17th of the month. What a combination. Incidentally, Christmas Eve is apparently also celebrated as the Day of Paradise – summa summarum of the above. After that, well, we start again by observing the Hangover Day on the 1st of January…

After this blast of a holiday review and on a more serious note, I am left wondering about deeper – social, cultural, psychological – roots of our universal desire for festivities and related rituals. Anthropologists (Rappaport, Kottak) refer to rituals as stylised, repetitive, sacred actions designed to take their participants out of their mundane existence for a brief moment of celebration of transcendence. But, more importantly, rituals have another dimension: they are social acts performed in public and involving others. Holidays, feasts and festivals, extraordinary days and exceptional occasions, revolve around major or minor rituals, inherited or newly created, which bring us closer together as a community and allow us jointly to reconstruct a sacred space and return to the “origin of reality”, as Mircea Eliade put it in The Sacred and the Profane.

Eliade wrote mainly of ancient or traditional ‘holy-days’, but his emphasis on the difference between a person’s behaviour during the festival and before or after it applies equally to our de-sacralised, post-modernist, absurd celebrations of the Day of Spicy Food or the Day of  a Librarian. Something or someone is given special status – for one day a year – and, in response, we make an effort to ritualise and elevate an action that would normally be bland, flat and ordinary, thus creating meaning that our busy lives may otherwise lack. Time slows down. Life becomes richer. People seem closer. Death appears farther. In the words of an unknown poet,

“…gather ’round and celebrate the life that has been given,

A gift of love – of hope eternal.

Our tiny bit of heaven”.

So, maybe, like Julie Powell who cooked her way through Julia Child’s 524 French recipes, I should attempt to celebrate my way through the year-long list of unholy holidays provided by Nonsensopedia, and, together with my family, friends, colleagues and neighbours, retrace steps to the beginnings of reality? Because, in the words of another poet, Louis MacNeice, “the morning after is the first day” and every day is a Day Worthy of Celebration. Na zdrowie!

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11 November musings

Today is Remembrance Day, so I’m wearing a poppy and listening to Chopin. The poppy is for England, my husband’s home country which I love, and Chopin’s music, of course, embodies everything that is related to Poland and its twisted history. The 11th of November is the anniversary of Polish independence, as we regained sovereignty in 1918, after 123 years of partitions. Well, it didn’t last long, only until 1939… Incidentally, Norman Davies is one of those few western historians who can lucidly explain it all, or at least most of it. My clever husband has a good grasp on Polish history, too, despite being a foreigner.

But, anyway, during the communist years, Independence Day was a day of demonstrations and clashes with the police as official celebrations of the anniversary weren’t allowed. Now, of course, it is our National Day, very official and very allowed. How things have changed. For instance, books that were banned by communist authorities are now collecting dust in bookshops all over the country. Nothing banned left to read…

We seem to thrive in adverse circumstances – under communism (and under other unpleasant systems of governance before democracy took over in 1989) our political jokes used to be superbly funny, our incomprehensible films were built around subtle allusions, censored and often not shown, and drama performances had the power to entice thousands of people to go out and protest against Soviet oppression. And now? Crude jokes, no censorship, empty theatres. No more Index Librorum Prohibitorum…

A couple of years ago, having travelled around Poland with his British friends, my son, half-English himself, referred to Poland as “a normal country”. That comment saddened me deeply. Have we really become normal – and alarmingly boring as a result? Have we lost our Eastern European peasant edge? What’s happened to “the underground”? To the spirit of resistance? To the vodka drinking, with salted cucumber and pickled herring to smooth its fiery passage down one’s throat? In my Polish family, people seem to have moved on to French wine and abandoned our ancient native customs of drunken disorderly behaviour. Clearly, the spirit of resistance is out shopping for Bourgogne Chardonnay and smoked salmon and wouldn’t be seen dead in the company of a bottle of Wyborowa.

OK, enough of that. My gripe above reminds me of my granny, who used to say in a very grim tone of voice, “oh, before the war, even the weather was better”, meaning, “them, bloody communists, spoilt it”, of course. Meaning, “life was better when I was young”. Of course.

Remembering better days, I’m going back to Chopin’s Waltzes. I particularly recommend Waltz for piano no 17 in E flat major and no 2 in A flat major, played by Ashkenazy.

P.S. I got the whole Ashkenazy Chopin collection from my friend, Leo Lefebure, a renowned theologian and professor at Georgetown University, who is also an accomplished pianist and has a keen interest (and great knowledge of) music. One day, a few years ago, I was listening to one of Chopin’s beautiful pieces, waiting for guests to arrive for supper. Leo came first and as soon as I opened the door, he said, “Chopin. Ballade in G minor. Ashkenazy.” It was a nice moment.

Damien Hirst God help us

Thank goodness I didn’t have to pay to get in – if I did, I would have had to ask for my money back. Platitudes and bullshit, from start to finish. I bet he is laughing all the way to the bank (reportedly, he is the richest contemporary artist in the world).

My daughter tells me he got a D on his GCSE art exam… I suspect his “art” is his revenge on the “establishment” and society, aka the likes of me. But, you see, the clever thing about it is, you can’t win – whatever reaction you have to his work (and work it is, of course, he must have worked hard to get all those severed cow heads and zillions of flies eating the rotten flesh of animal corpses), an army of pretentious art critics/writers can say, well, whatever reaction you have to his work, is what he wanted in the first place. Hirst won’t say anything (except for the clichés that he dispenses as easily as his polka dots); he’ll bank the money instead.

Anyway, enjoy every minute of it, if you choose to visit Hirst’s show at the Al Riwaq Exhibition Hall in Doha. It’s free!

Cow's head and flies, Hirst, Nov 2013, Doha

Camel machbous

On another note, last week I cooked my first ever camel machbous. I combined a Qatari machbous recipe with a camel stew recipe given to me by a very jolly Sudanese student of mine, Abdelmajeed, whose mum dictated it to him. The meat was tender and the rice fragrant with Baharat, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. As my sister and brother-in-law were passing through Doha on their way back to Poland from Iran, I invited my dear friend Nancy, who is American, and two wonderful and very close Qatari friends, Suhaim and Jassim. Even my lovely daughter, well known for her exceptionally picky eating habits, had some of the Qatari-Sudanese-Polish machbous and graciously said it was OK. 🙂

Perhaps the world would be a better place (wars could be avoided?) if people shared their recipes with each other and ate together more often.

Natural history and civic society

Qatar Natural History Group (of which I am a humble new(ish) member and new media officer) is one of those informal organisations whose existence almost defies belief. It was founded 35 years ago, on the 8th of November 1978, by a group of enthusiasts, passionate about things such as desert rock formations, moving dunes and mangroves, and other than money, war, oil and shopping.

Since its inception, the group has continued its monthly meetings with talks on subjects ranging from archaeology to the sex life of dragonflies, as well as field trips organised and led by (slightly mad) volunteers. It has survived regional wars, the 2005 bombing of the local amateur theatre society (Doha Players, also set up by a bunch of passionate expatriates), political and economic transformations of Qatar, and, last but not least, the most difficult obstacle to its functioning, the ever-changing composition of its expat membership. Well, there are a number of QNHG members who have been living in Doha for a long time, too, but mostly, people come and go in unexpected zigzags of contractual work, as we know…

Anyway, what has struck me recently is that a non-political, self-funding, non-profit organisation such as QNHG is a wonderful example of grass-roots democracy in action. Doha Players is another example. Of course, there are many other small groups or societies like those two and of course none are perfect in the way they exercise democracy. But they all stem from a certain tradition of democratic thinking and conduct. Someone has an idea, shares it with others, they decide to pursue it and form a basis for cooperative, mutually-beneficial but also mutually-responsible course of action. They abide by the rules they have set and thus create a structure that has certain power – for instance, of intellectual or artistic persuasion, without any political clout. They commit themselves as volunteers – for no pay, no external reward, but with intrinsic motivation driving their commitment.

Similarly, children who go to schools whose ideals of education are rooted in like traditions, are taught from a fairly young age that they can participate in such voluntary clubs and committees, which work with and for the school or wider community.

It makes me happy to think that my children have experienced that form of engagement with the world. But it saddens me to think that many of my Qatari students have not. Somehow, I cannot help thinking that their experience of school is therefore less rich than my children’s and their future outlook may not include the idea of involvement in a voluntary communal activity conducted democratically for the sheer pleasure of discovering the world around them. But, that’s one way of building a civic society – and it takes time for its seeds to take root and sprout…

Question

Below is an email I have sent out to friends everywhere. 

Dear Friends,

I have received an email from a former student of mine who is now studying in London. She is a delightful, thoughtful and thinking girl and we have been in touch since she finished the ABP two years ago. She has recently asked me a question which I tried to answer to the best of my ability, but maybe you could relate to this issue, too, and help me out by sharing your opinions on this.
 
This is what she wrote:
 
“I have something that I would like to ask you cause it’s been bothering me for a long time and I often feel uneasy about it, do you think that most people around the world hate Islam cause everywhere I go and everything I do I try to send a good message about Islam and Muslims and that we are not racist terrorist monsters but wherever I go I read comments that we are stupid and aggressive and barbaric and it just upsets me. I know I can’t blame them because that’s the media image, that’s all they know of us but I always like to think that there are more smart then ignorant people who actually look up Islam themselves and read about it rather then taking what the media says but lately I feel that I’ve been proven wrong.” 
 
What I said to her was that I believe that people matter more than ideologies and personal encounters matter more than stereotypes. But stereotypes come from somewhere, from some people and their actions, from the media on both sides. I tried to stress the “two-sidedness” of it all.  
 
In an email she wrote to me after she got my response she said, “I like the idea that there are more people like you and me that love each other and accept each other. I heard something I forgot where ” there are no bad religions, only bad people” and I think that’s a good thing to believe.” 
 
So, anyway, what do you think of her question?