Friends and former colleagues ask me — what’s it like living and working in the Middle East? Over the months my answer to this question has evolved in ways which continue to surprise me.
Early on, there’s the immediate impact of blazing sunshine, matched by intense heat during the summer months, all mitigated by ubiquitous air conditioning. There’s the bright white, monochromatic landscape outside of town and the impressive cityscape at night. The people are on the whole friendly and relationships built on trust gradually develop week by week.
My journey to work begins each day in the underground carpark. My spot is close to the exit, so it’s clunk-click, start the car, switch on a podcast and then on with the shades. There’s no need to check — the sun will be out — and then I’ll spin out through the Pearl and onto the Corniche which runs beside the sparkling aquamarine waters of West Bay.
Reflecting on this daily routine, I realise that one of the essential pleasures of living in Qatar is the daily smorgasbord of sensory delight served up each day. Whether it’s that early morning journey to work, or the architecture that sweeps you up into the malls, museums and even hospitals, the glittering night lights, the bleak severity of the desert that lingers at the edge of things. The call to prayer, evocative as the sun sinks over the eastern skyline, the narrow alleys inside the Souk Waqif, tiny shops bulging with bolts of silk or overflowing with tubs of spices, the swirling incense mingling with conversations held in a hundred different languages.
Finding myself in the moment so that these sensory experiences don’t pass me by, is something I’m focusing on doing better. It would be such a shame if such immersive sensations were to sink below my consciousness, become routine and no longer available to enjoy.
I’m using Day One, a journaling app to help make sure I don’t lose sight of the simple pleasures available. I’ve written a couple of snippets in TextExpander which will populate Day One for me with some questions I use to prompt my daily record. I’ve written about Positive Psychology elsewhere, and it does feel like I’m re-wiring my brain to be on the look-out for such simple pleasures. Just recording the fact that I’m grateful each day to enjoy them is contributing to the happiness I feel about being here in Qatar.
There’s another thing about living here which I realise is somewhat paradoxically adding to my contentment. Back in the UK, we have so many things on tap: major sport, as much culture as we could ever need. There's Amazon for anything we want tomorrow, roads that lead to places you’ve never been, the great British countryside and coastline, wildlife, flowers, gardening and bookshops within which to lose yourself for half an afternoon.
The fact that there is a more limited palette to draw on here in Qatar, albeit as noted above some of it spectacular, leads to a far simpler life. Fewer choices mean there’s less mental noise somehow. What shall we do? Swim in the sea, have a meal with friends, walk through the Pearl or along the Corniche, settle down and enjoy that box set? Barry Schwarz wrote about this in The Paradox of Choice — Why More is Less. One of the sources of our unhappiness is the knowledge of what we might be missing out on when we make our choice.
I’m wondering whether these two ideas, the cultivation of gratitude for the moment on the one hand, and paring things down and simplifying on the other, might be at the root of the happiness I’m experiencing.
I don’t know, but as Ted Hughes wrote in Wodwo, I’ll go on looking.