Day 7 – Jen’s Bonus Day! (and sadly, the last day)… Dispatch from Doha

The hotel felt so empty today with most of the TEDx-ers departing throughout the day. I slept in (must’ve got six hours last night!), worked out and then went over to the mall to do a bit of last-minute shopping. The Doha City Center has everything from a supermarket to an ice skating rink and people from all cultures wander through it. I couldn’t help but take a picture of this new store coming soon to the mall:

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It’s the name of the store next to the image of the woman in the full abaya that caught my attention and struck me as really… odd. But then again, my understanding of the abaya changed a lot over the course of this trip. Typically the reason for wearing one is attributed to the Koranic quote, “O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and the believing women, to cover themselves with a loose garment. They will thus be recognized and no harm will come to them” (33:59). My initial, and admittedly inexperienced, perception was that the abaya covered a woman completely, somehow taking away her individuality and beauty and making her somewhat anonymous. Now seeing them in person I’ve changed my feelings quite a bit.

There are many different abayas, and not all of them are just plain black nor do they cover the whole face. I saw beautiful, smiling and laughing women wearing abayas that had intricate beading, lace and embroidery. I even heard some of the women talking about other women and how they chose to wear their abayas. You can have one that is too tight, or you can place decoration (like a peacock feather) in a place that draws attention to the wrong body parts… apparently “cattiness” is not only a Western trait!

I am again reminded of how similar people are, despite how different we look at first glance. This might just be my big lesson from the week. What I once saw as a way to “hide” a woman now became just a different way of dressing. I’m sure it’s different (and maybe more restrictive) in other regions, but I was happy to see that women here, just like everywhere else I have been, can be very outspoken, passionate about certain topics, smart, educated—even catty about how other women dress. Ah… just like home. 😉

After the mall I went to visit a friend (Rachel) of a friend for lunch. She lives in a community of ex-pats who work for Exxon-Mobile. These people are from all over the world, and live together in a  “compound” just outside of Doha. It’s pretty funny to think that I was in the Middle East, hanging out with a woman from Michigan, her husband from Venezuela, their friends from California and Canada, eating empanadas. I guess it was the perfect melting pot to finish out my week of culture! And it was so nice to have a meal in true family-style after living in a hotel.

I didn’t have to fly out until 1 a.m. so Rachel recommended a visit to the spa before my long trip. They had their driver pick me up and take me over to the spa, which is near the airport. Just when I thought I had made it through a full week without a typical Jen-calamity—it happened. As the lanes were merging, the car next to us tried to force their way into our lane. My driver was having none of it. He refused to let them in, yet they kept pushing. Then the car shook and made a horrible grinding sound as the front of their car hit the passenger’s side and scraped down the rest of the car!

My driver threw the car into park and jumped out in the middle of a very busy intersection. He ran over to the other car and began arguing with them. Cars were honking, and people were yelling, and my heart was racing! What if they started fighting? What if the cops came and I had to make a statement? Should I hide in the backseat or jump out into traffic and take my chances? Images of Patriot Games flashed through my mind and I did … nothing. The guys that hit us took off and my driver got back into the car to call the police. Whew! I was really ready for that spa appointment.

After treating myself to some amazing spa treatments and extra time in the “relaxation room” to calm my heart, I went to the airport. No problems checking in or clearing security (even my backpack behaved this time). There were at least 20 other TEDx-ers hanging out in the airport so we managed to have one last TED love-fest before getting on our respective planes. We re-lived the event and talked about how we would all stay in touch… even though we know how hard that can be. When it was time to board the plane my brain was full, I had run out of words and I was completely spent.

As tired as I was, I had a really hard time getting on the plane and returning to “real” life. I just didn’t want it to end… I wanted to keep on learning and connecting and brainstorming on how to change the world (one idea at a time). Steve Frazee told me that this trip would change my life and he was right. It’s hard to sum up exactly how it changed but I know I’ve returned with new perspectives on culture and people, knowledge and some really great new friends. I’m thinking differently about things, and it feels great. I hope that everyone gets an opportunity like this at least once in their lives.

Thank you to the board of TEDxGrandRapids for nominating me to represent our city at this event. Thanks also to Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad gin Khalifa Al-Thani for sponsoring the event and to the people at TED for putting it all together. I’m looking forward to sharing more about this adventure during TEDxGrandRapids 2012 (now only a little more than a week away!!!). See you there.

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