Qatarperegrine's Greatest Hits!

I recently pointed someone at my blog and then realized that it's actually rather difficult to find interesting content here, amid the fluff of links to Peninsula articles. Relatedly, sometimes I try to refer back to an old blog post and am stymied by the uselessness of Livejournal's search function. So, I spent a little time this afternoon tagging old posts.

The favorites tag now takes you to my 35 favorite blog posts, from the FAQ I posted about Qatar before I even moved there in 2004 to my list of what I thought I'd miss when I moved back in 2010. If for some reason you stumble across this blog and want to find out what I had to say about living in Qatar, that's probably a good place to start.


Since I'm no longer living in Qatar, I guess it doesn't make much sense to blog here anymore! From here on out, such non-baby-related blogging as I do will be as toorsdenote. Please friend/RSS me there!

Edited 4/10/11 to add: I'm now getting spam comments posted to this account daily at least. I can't disable commenting without erasing existing comments, so from now on all comments will be screened, and I will not be coming back to unscreen them. If you are a live human being who wants to comment or ask questions about Qatar, you can reach me through my other journal. If you comment here, your comment will never be read.

Qatar news roundup

Three of my least favorite things about Qatar, all in one week of news.

1. The Qatari government carried out a sting operation against bakeries making obscene cakes. Because, in a country where the labor law is routinely flouted even by prestigious employers like the Qatar Foundation, law enforcement's #1 priority should really be penis-shaped cakes.

2. An Indian maid on her way back to India from Oman lost her passport while transferring through the Qatar airport. Qatar Airways shipped her back to Muscat, but Oman had cancelled her visa when she left, so she spent five days in the airport before becoming delusional and dropping dead. This isn't Qatar's fault, but it's the sort of thing that happens when you have the kinds of immigration policies and bureaucracies that Gulf countries have.

3. The overtly racist nature of Family Day policies at the malls is old news, but this undercover video presents the situation well. Particularly depressing is the fact that the "no Asians" policy is being enforced by a Nepalese guard.

Arabic logo quiz!

When we first moved to Doha, Justin and I drove around taking pictures of company logos in Arabic, in order to put together an identify-the-brand quiz. We never got around to actually making the quiz, though.

Happily, someone else has! Can you name the Companies From the Arabic Version of Their Logo?

We got 100%. :-)

Also, let this serve as a general plug for sporcle.com, one of our chief forms of evening entertainment.

September I'll... um, forget apparently

Eek it's September already!

The last few years, some of us have done this little project where we take and post a photo every day for the month of September. Doesn't have to be a good photo, or an artistic photo... just a photo every day for a month.

I like doing it because it makes me look at the world for interesting pictures, and because it's fun to see what everyone else posts.

You're welcome to join in! Just join the Flickr group September I'll Remember and upload a picture every day.

Student jailed for inciting homosexuality

Via dubaiwalla: a student in Dubai has been jailed for 3 months after saying in an online chatroom that men having sex with men is a personal matter and the government shouldn't interfere.

As a friend succinctly put it:
"Yeah, how dare he incite immoral behavior like having sex with men? Why can't he stick to moral pleasures, like shoving a cattle-prod up someone's ass? ... which the UAE seems to have deemed 'okay'."

Shomer Negiah again

We moved into our new house today. By coincidence, the geographic area that met our location requirements (walking distance to the park, the grocery store, the library, major bus routes) is coterminous with the area that is walking distance to Squirrel Hill's various Orthodox synagogues, so we seem to have become the token Gentiles on the block.

There's something kind of funny to me about leaving a land of modestly dressed women and men who won't shake my hand, only to move into a neighborhood full of modestly dressed women and men who won't shake my hand.

Today's interesting cultural interaction occurred when our movers, who are Israeli, arrived at the new house. Bringing in the first load of boxes, one of them noticed the mezuzah on our front doorway and said, "Oh! You're Jewish?"

"No," I said, "The former owners left that there."

The next time I walked through the doorway, I noticed the mezuzah was gone.

I was somewhat relieved, since I didn't know what I was supposed to do with it -- I think it's supposed to be buried, like an old Torah, but I wasn't sure.

However, then the former owners called to say they'd come by to collect their mezuzot today. So, awkwardly, we had to ask the mover if he'd taken it. He replied that it was obligatory to remove the mezuzah if the new houseowners weren't Jewish, and did not offer to give it back to us. So, I hope the former owners were just coming by to make sure the mezuzot were correctly disposed of, and not because they had any particular sentimental value!

Moving help eek!

Pittsburgh people: I hate to ask, but we could use one more person to help us move some furniture tomorrow afternoon (1-4ish). If you're made of awesome and would be willing to pitch in, please let me know. We'll buy you dinner.

Losing My Religion

I was recently asked why I stopped considering myself Buddhist. My response:

The first answer that popped into my mind was the last few lines of a poem by the iconoclastic Zen monk Ikkyu:
To harden into a Buddha is wrong;
All the more I think so
When I look at a stone Buddha.

To answer the question more completely, I think I have to recount my whole progression from where I was four years ago (which was, to recap, a panentheist progressive Christian who practiced Buddhist meditation) to where I am now (an atheist), because I think being a Buddhist was just a brief way station along that path.

One of the main things I learned about myself by living in a Muslim country is that my worldview is fundamentally a naturalistic one. My Muslim friends' belief in jinn and witchcraft seemed painfully off-base to me, not because I thought they believed in the wrong set of supernatural forces while Christians believe in the correct supernatural forces, but because I really don't believe in supernatural forces at all. I've never believed in angels or miracles, for example; I haven't believed in an afterlife since I was 12; and I don't know how many years it's been since I believed in a personal God in the sense of a discrete, anthropomorphic being "out there" who influences the goings-on of our universe. I nonetheless believed in some sort of ineffable divinity, and in a Western, mostly secular country, it's fairly easy to overlay some vague belief in the Ground of Being on top of an otherwise naturalist metaphysic and call that Christianity.

Encountering religious people (both Muslim and otherwise) who really fundamentally believe in the existence and power of supernatural forces, though, made me come to terms with the fact that I'm not one of those people. And, to be honest with myself, I had to admit that the kind of worldview espoused by the Scriptures and church tradition was also a supernatural one, despite the efforts of Tillich, Robinson, Spong, et al. to update the Christian understanding of God in the light of a modern worldview that rejects supernaturalism. It began to bother me that I spent half my time in church affixing mental footnotes to every creed I recited or hymn I sang -- for example, mentally noting that by "Christ" I meant "the spirit of compassion and self-sacrifice" rather than "that dude named Jesus who lived a long time ago." I got tired of the mental gymnastics necessary for me to affirm the things Christians affirm.

One day I sat down in the library to read Tillich's "Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions" and read the sentence: "It is natural and unavoidable that Christians affirm the fundamental assertion of Christianity that Jesus is the Christ and reject what denies this assertion." Even though I've certainly read more thoughtful and well-reasoned expositions of the relationship between Christianity and other religions (most notably Diana Eck's in Encountering God), somehow that sentence was my proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Even Tillich claimed that "Jesus is the Christ" is the "fundamental assertion of Christianity," and that's just not something I could assert without all those aforementioned mental footnotes. I realized that if I was finding Paul "The god of theism is dead" Tillich impossibly conservative, I should really stop pretending the wide umbrella of Christianity could (or should) extend as far as where I now stood. In that instant, sitting in the religion section of the CMU library, I realized I wasn't going to call myself a Christian anymore. The thought felt like vertigo, but I also felt the weight of all those mental footnotes lift.

I didn't leave Buddhism in the same instant because reconciling Buddhism with my otherwise secular worldview didn't require the same mental gymnastics. I always appreciated that Buddhism focuses pragmatically on how to alleviate suffering rather than on metaphysics, that the Buddha doesn't seem to have cared about whether there was a god or not, that the Buddha taught that we should test his teachings against our own experience and reason instead of blindly following set doctrine. Because of these things, practicing Buddhism as a secular person didn't feel dishonest or disingenuous.

But as I started to practice meditation more often and listen to weekly dharma talks, it dawned on me that Buddhism is hardly free of dogma. Its teachings on the afterlife are both as central to its teachings and as implausible as Christianity's, for example. And, in practice, the vast majority of Buddhists in the world practice a supernatural religion, whether they are superstitiously chanting the name of the Amitabha Buddha or undergoing body mutilation in order to channel the emperor-gods -- or offering food to the hungry ghosts, as I myself did at a Zen retreat 3 years ago. It's possible to practice Buddhism without these things, just like it was possible for me to practice Christianity without believing in an afterlife, but then we're back to mental gymnastics.

Ethics is a good example of this. I think the Five Precepts are a better guide to ethical behavior than the Ten Commandments. But why do I think that? I am measuring both sets of rules against my internal sense of what kinds of behaviors do and don't cause harm to others, and the Precepts seem like a better approximation of what secular ethical reasoning suggests. But then, if my fundamental yardstick is the utilitarian one, then I don't need the Five Precepts any more than I need the Ten Commandments; I just need to employ ethical reasoning. So why not cut out the middleman, as Sam Harris puts it, and do what I think is right instead of trying to find a religion whose moral code approximates what I already think is right.

On a deeper level, though, I think I stopped practicing Buddhism because I stopped craving the things that I had looked to it to provide. I was initially drawn to Buddhist practice because it seemed to hold out the promise of inner peace and the power to still your own chattering monkey mind. To a naturally anxious kind of person like me those sound heavenly. Another way of saying this is that I wanted to use Buddhism as a tool to help me become the person I felt I ought to be. (I think now that this is a very un-Buddhist reason to practice Buddhism -- although I'd still like to hear an answer to the question I asked of that Zen monk three years ago: isn't the desire to extinguish our cravings itself a craving?) Somehow, perhaps as I've gotten older and a little less insecure, I feel less need to fight the way my mind works on its own. I no longer feel like I *ought* to have one-pointed mind; I have monkey mind because I am descended from monkey ancestors, and on the whole a distractable psyche has served our lineage well. One day I realized that cravings and attachments bring me most of the joys I experience as well as most of the suffering, and that I'm actually not all that interested in extinguishing them after all. So I took off my dharmachakra necklace and prayer beads and stopped calling myself a Buddhist. I still have warm feelings towards Buddhism: my dharmachakra and fo zhu are still at the top of my jewelry box; I'm reading Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist right now; just yesterday I idly looked up the closest zendo to my new house. But I don't want to harden into a stone Buddha; I just want to be a flesh-and-blood Marjorie.

Which somehow reminds me of another poem I love, Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese," which I think comes closest to summarizing my current perspective on spirituality:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.