Recently a colleague and I visited three primary schools in Qatar on behalf of my employer, the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. The experience was the highlight of my six weeks in Doha.
Really I tagged along as Ms. Hala Desouky, our marketing coordinator, met with school administrators. The Philharmonic plans to perform Mussourgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition for Arabic schools one day and for English schools a second day. Hala was inviting schools not just to come to the performance. We also wanted to visit classrooms before the performance to discuss music and the orchestra. We would play a movement from Pictures from a recording, ask students to create artwork to go with the music, then project the students’ imaages over the orchestra at the performance.
Qatar’s history in orchestral performance is brief. The Philharmonic was created in 2007 by Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned. The first performance, led by Lorin Maazel, was in 2008. It’s one of the centers of the remarkable Qatar Foundation, a vividly aspirational project with goals in education, science and research, and community development. The orchestra’s 101 full-time musicians were chosen from 3,000 applicants in an audition tour of Europe and Arab countries.
At each of the three schools I was asked by the security guard to wait outside as Hala entered. I later learned that the teachers, all women, normally wear western clothing within the confines of the school. For a male visitor to enter they all had to be informed so they could put on their abaya, a black, full-length, long-sleeved garment. At one of the three schools I was not admitted. I’m grateful to have been admitted to two, and I respect the third school’s response as well. Qataris traditionally segregate by gender in certain situations, yet from the little I’ve observed it would be a mistake to believe women are second-class citizens. One only has to look at the example of the emirha to see how women actively participate in society.
I hasten to say that I’m no expert on that topic.
The schools I visited were surrounded by high walls. In several places I saw images of the royal family; it reminded me how there were pictures of Kennedy and Johnson in my classrooms as a child. The schools have no music teacher (yet another way they reminded me of schools in the United States).
Hala conducted the meetings and occasionally translated or asked questions of me. Not knowing Arabic, I heard only tone and the back-and-forth pattern of the conversation. I was impressed by the mutual respect, the degree of interest and the energy level of the conversation. These educators were excited about opening a new world to their students.
They were also extraordinarily hospitable. As is characteristic here, a tea attendant brought beverages and exquisite pastries on china. I hadn’t had “green coffee” before, an herb-infused beverage that looks more like green tea than coffee.
At each of the schools Hala got a commitment to participate. I count that as success; none of the schools had come to our concerts before. They chose to bring only 30 students each, which I see as a toe in the water.
This week Hala and Lorena Manescu, one of our violinists, visited one of the schools. In preparation for the visit, the school had printed information about our orchestra in their newspaper. Lorena played a Romanian folk tune, and one of the students played the piano. I think Hala and Lorena fulfilled our orchestra’s mission that day.
It’s easy to think that Qatar is like the west with its skyscrapers, its universities, Al Jazeera News, its hosting the 2022 World Cup, and its world-leading wealth per capita. No, it’s much more remarkable than that in its traditions and warmth. I’m privileged when I get glimpses of it.
The opinions and observations in this blogpost are mine alone. I do not speak for my employer on this site.