The alarm clicks on, and a singer fills the pre-dawn room with exotic consonants over a heavy background of strings and a plucked ood. It is 4am here, and in an effort to get on California-time, I will immediately commence to pretend that it is 5pm. I extricate the daily slippers from the plastic wrap and cram my wide feet into the narrow terry-cloth toe-cups, don the comically plush bathrobe, and Skype home to see the last light of dusk over her shoulder. She’s dog-sitting for friends, and he starts woofing when I say “Hi Kai!” It occurs to me that he might not have a real sense of simultaneous ‘here’ and ‘there’. Where do you start when you set out to explain time zones to a dog? You’re having dinner, I’m having breakfast. Woof.
Here are a few things that I will remember (actual conference notes and details are in my notebooks). The charter bus from the hotel to the conference center has curtains that like to stay closed, preventing us from getting any real sense of the city as we ride back and forth. There are people spending a lot of money doing studies and having meetings. Stephen Hippell uses a Finder window on his laptop to browse around and show photos and videos while he’s presenting – it’s both fascinating and annoying at the same time. Sauteed mushrooms over rice with steak medallions are a good breakfast – fruit on the side. The Sheraton Hotel is a tetrahedron. People and businesses are moving to Qatar because people and businesses are moving to Qatar. Because there is almost no “here” here, they are making one. The Persian Gulf is like a big bathtub full of epsom salts; warm, salty, calm, and shallow. If a woman has her face covered do not engage in conversation unless she starts one. Six kinds of hummus in a buffet is not excessive. The breeze coming in from the gulf smells like warm iron. Dust is the reminder that the desert is still here. The people that you meet during the breaks are often more interesting than the people presenting. A tree stands alone in a shallow depression in an open lot, sand and bits of debris piled up against the trunk – a testament to determination. The birds here sleep in the daytime, coming out at dusk and dawn to chatter and chirp in the imported palm trees. Architecture should be more than just surprising. The Islamic Art Museum puts all those geometric patterns that are on doors and screens in a context that makes them make sense. You hardly ever meet anyone native to Qatar. Instead of carrying your groceries in the souk, you hire a really old guy with a wheelbarrow and he follows you around while you shop.
I know almost nothing about geography, and often amuse my fellow attendees by asking where their country is. I use my hands to make the shape of their continent and have them point out where they live.
“Over here,” they will say after orienting themselves to my hand-map, “near the base of this finger.”
“Is it nice there?”
“Oh yes. You should come and visit us. But stay away from this area here,” pointing at the bend in my wrist, “things are a bit unsettled there.”
My carpal-tunnel irritation has evidently leaked into the neighboring country.
After a presentation on the new language of school architecture, wherein I pick up the evocative characterization of “classic” schools as the “cells & bells” approach, I turn to my row-mate and offer, “Those so-called ‘playful’ spaces looked awfully sterile to me, what do you think?”
He pauses for a moment, and says, “In my village, the classroom is a tree. It is the oldest tree in the village, and it is also used for town meetings.”
“So, no fancy desks or individual study places?”
“The blackboard is tied to the tree when school is in session. Sometimes, the tree is also the jail. If someone does something bad, we tie them to the tree until the police from the municipality can come and pick him up. Sometimes we would be studying and there would be a drunk man tied to the side of the tree opposite the blackboard.”
He is from Angola, down by the first knuckle of my thumb.