"How dare she!", I mean if I was moving to a place I should at least know how to say it. I don't think I'm some illiterate uncultured fool however the woman that corrected my pronunciation of Qatar surely thought I was. This all happened in response to me talking about my imminent arrival to Doha. I was at a local restaurant in Upstate New York having a conversation with a family friend. I had said "kuh-TAR" and she had responded with "Oh I just love "cutter!"". Not per-say correcting me flat out but acting as if she could state her superiority with a sly remark. Truth be told maybe I was moving to a country that I couldn't even pronounce the name of. I was perhaps bastardizing a language with my American tongue the same way one would utter "Greenwich" as "green-witch" or "Worcestershire" as "wor-chest-er-shy-er".
(In the end I think we were both wrong for of what I have come to know is that it is more "KUH-tar" with an emphasis on the first syllable followed by a super quick "tar" at the end. Having the "q" make a hard "k" sound that supposedly should originate deep within the throat.)
My Mother teared up over the phone after I told her about my plans to attend UCL Qatar. For she had supposed that after China I would come home to America. But for me to come to The Middle East is in some sense a starting point for my long trek returning to the west. Metaphorically halfway and as I pointed out to her, also two hours closer by air than Beijing. I arrived to Doha on the 29th of August two days late into my orientation program for UCL Qatar. I remember peering out of my Royal Jordanian window onto an endless array of sand. The plane was descending but I still couldn't see a city, for it in some sense disappeared within it's dusty landscape of earth and architecture. I soon realized that purple was not the national color of Qatar but beige was. Even after opening up the door to my new apartment I still saw the color beige, beige furniture, beige bed sheets, beige carpet etc… Coming from a ceramic background, a man that loves porcelain, I have never really had an interest in the beige color. Beige represents stoneware and I moved to China because ceramics there were about the pureness of white. My ceramic friends and I always shared the motto "when it's brown flush it down".
(Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar)
But as you take it all in you begin to realize that the pale sandy yellowish-brown color of the Qatari beige is different. It is more a facade rather than a surface. It basically forces you to squint your eyes to make out the image of a detailed landscape that is not monotonous but diverse and colorful. Colorful in not a literal sense but in a cultural one. Out of the total population of approximately 1.5 million only 20% are Qatari making the other 80% Indian, Filipino, Nepali, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, European, American etc… A global hot pot of the east and west. And as a result the city is filled with the sounds of such diverse language: Malayalam, Hindi, Tagalog, Urdu, Punjabi etc… Everyone comes here for the Qatari dream, a Middle Eastern version of the American dream, that in the end gives the city an edge of energy that compels you to flourish.
(New Student's at UCL Qatar)
I met my classmates outside our "lavender village" apartments the following morning, apartments that in my opinion have no resemblance to anything "lavender". On way to campus sitting on the bus I introduced myself to each one, and in the back of my head referred to my own past and all the other times I had met people I would have a circumstantial future with. This was my 4th school orientation. The 1st being in Vermont where I started at the Putney school as a 10th grade boarder, the 2nd at Alfred as a freshman in college and the 3rd in Beijing where I started my BFA in sculpture at The Central Academy. Each one different but all had one thing in common: strangers that soon would become friends. Staring at them on the bus that day I thought to myself "shit I sure hope I like them". There really isn't many of them, we are just 8 in my program and there are only around 30 in the whole school. These are the people I'm going to be with for the next two years and in all honesty knowing that brings a much needed feeling of stability. This wasn't a group of Chinese people like my last orientation of which I was the odd ball both culturally and physically. This was different. I have always worked in unfamiliar places where I was always the foreigner. Here we all were, together as a group both literally and figuratively connecting bridges from our respective countries to each-others. We have Qataris, Jordanians, Greeks, Brits, Americans, and people from Serbia, Panama and Syria. An eclectic bunch of different backgrounds all wanting something different in this new adventure we are embarking on.
UCL's program is a "unique" partnership between the University College of London, Qatar Foundation and the Qatar Museums Authority. What this "uniqueness" means I have yet to truly understand but what I have gathered so far is that this is not some random masters program but something far more layered and in-depth. The students are given incredible facilities that are truly mind boggling and top notch teachers that have continued to amaze me each day with their passion for their own subject and their interest to share their knowledge of it. It's a school that knows what it wants, who it wants, and where it wants to go.
I see my arrival here as a logistical step in the evolution of my work. Not necessarily preconceived but in the end quite obvious. I started out as a wannabe chef fascinated with the use of ceramics in relation to food. From there I fell in love with the form of ceramic tableware and the process of making. After I was drawn to China for the exploration of it's material landscape, both natural and artificial. Now I have ended up in Doha to explore the object itself, the cultural baggage it carries and it's preservation for the future. I have gone from the passion for function --> to structure --> to material --> to object.
On the last night of orientation we all had dinner at some over the top lebanese restaurant in Katara. It turned out to be both a feast for the eyes and stomach and I soon realized that the Doha bulge might not be a myth after all. What I loved was in that room you didn't know who was who. The students knew no one and the teachers having been stuck in a world without students seemed ecstatic that the moment had finally arrived. We were in that room because our similar interests had led us there. Whether it was the archeologists, the museum curators or the conservators, we were all fascinated in how the old affected the new. We were exploring each other similar to the objects we soon would be studying. We asked questions about each others past, why Doha, whats next, and above all how to pronounce Qatar.
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