“Desert Wind: My Life in Qatar” is a newly published memoir by poet Peter Fortunato about the four years he spent teaching writing and literature at the Weill Cornell Medicine Center near Doha, Qatar. He’ll be reading from his work on Tuesday, May 2, at 6 p.m. in the BorgWarner Room of the Tompkins County Public Library. He spoke with Ithaca Times journalist Barbara Adams recently about his experiences in the Persian Gulf emirate.

Ithaca Times: In 2005, what prompted you to take a teaching position there?

Peter Fortunato: The timing was right. I needed something new in my life and thought this was a wonderful opportunity –– to be part of an exciting new project, educating doctors. And I needed the money, which is why so many go to work in the Persian Gulf states. I also wanted to represent my country in a different way than the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were –– represent the America I believe in, a place of free speech and thought, of questioning authority, of choosing peace above war. 

IT: What was the unique attraction of the place?

PF: The mystique of Arabia, my previous transcendent experiences in Egypt in the ’90s and my lifelong passion for Arabian horses. I’d worked on an Arabian horse farm in high school and was planning to be a vet at Cornell. The horses were one of the reasons I stayed –– even becoming a member of two riding clubs.

IT: In your first months there, what cultural differences struck you most?

PF: Adapting to Islamic [Shariah], learning the local interpretation [of] it, finding out what you could and couldn’t do. I had to be cautious. Men cannot touch women in public, even their wives. My first faux pas was embracing my friends when I arrived at the airport. When my wife, Mary, visited, I couldn’t hold hands with her in public. Also, you could never criticize the government or royal family; even Al Jazeera never reports negatively about the country. But I asked a lot of questions of my students and Muslim friends and gradually learned what was appropriate.

Another aspect of my culture shock: in Doha, things are so modern and new that you expect them to run as in the West –– and they don’t always do that! 

IT: When you arrived, Qatar was in the early stages of rapid development…

PT: Yes, in 2006, the big high-water mark was the Asian Games–– that’s when Qatar announced itself to the world. They hosteda half Olympics, the first time in any Arab country. So there was 24-hour-a-day development going on –– new roads, buildings, giant posters. Over a two-week period, many hundreds of thousands came to see the games. And suddenly Doha felt like a cosmopolitan city; we even could dance in public. Then after the games, snap! Everything went back to traditional behaviors. But the urban development kept going –– they knew they’d be bidding for the World Cup in 2022. 

2006 was also the 10th anniversary of the Qatari foundation thatowns the building where the medical center is. My students were the school’s first cohort, in their second year. Other Arabic universities had international medical programs abroad, but this was the first accredited American medical school in the Middle East. Of the students, only about 20% were Qatari nationals; the rest were from India, Pakistan, Canada –– all over the world, and most were of Muslim or Arabic heritage.

IT: After living so modestly in Ithaca, was it strange to be surrounded by so much wealth?

PT: In my high-rise, I had a spacious flat with more floor space than my entire house in Ithaca. Four bathrooms! The SerdalTower, overlooking the bay, was then the tallest building; now it’s tiny, dwarfed by far higher buildings around it. 

We called it “the champagne lifestyle.” I had to adapt to the customs of the wealthy and the white-collar professional class. I wore a tie to work every day. It was good Zen training –– to be in an alien environment and blend in. Even though the country’s wealth is based on our international petroleum addiction, I suspended judgment, as I thought it was ultimately a good thing to be there, teaching humanities to med students.

Qatar is like a giant Disneyland; it starts to feel surreal after a while. It’s a liminal place, a crossroads, with people passing through all the time. You can lose your sense of identity here, maybe try being a different kind of person. But I hadn’t come there to make a fiction of my life. I tried to be myself, but it was often challenging.

IT: In an authoritarian monarchy, so restrictive regarding human rights, how did it feel to be a progressive Westerner? You wrote that you “learned to ignore the inequities.”

PF: I had to make compromises up to a point in my own ethical system. But with any individual I met, I wanted to be respectful, curious, friendly, peaceful. At that time, the students were unjaded, excited to attend an American medical school and be in seminars where you were encouraged to speak your mind. As a teacher it was affirming; I felt I was communicating. 

IT: More than just an account of your time abroad, this narrative brings up memories from your Italian Catholic childhood, your love of horses, your sexuality and your adult identity as a teacher, poet and practitioner of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.

PF: And one reason it took me so long to write the book was needing to distill and condense all those strands. Writers often choose to have distance from their homeland, culture and personal history; I had that mindset when I went. What surprised me in drafting the memoir was how vulnerable I had to be, how hard it was to peel back the protective covering. In Qatar, I hadn’t expected I’d feel my loneliness and miss my wife so much, that the separation would be so disorienting, especially at first. 

IT: In retrospect, what stays with you at this distance of 14years? 

PF: Because it took me so long to finish the book, I feel like I’ve been there all this time, kept track of the development, aware of how Doha has spread in every direction. The beach where I used to ride horses in the morning is gone. They’re losing their desert, paving it over and building out the city. This intense development is not only here; you see it in China, India, Southeast Asia. 

The Qatari are innovative, enterprising, ingenious –– they have a vision for their country. But because of the number of imported workers, they’re a minority in their own nation. And the disparity between the haves and have nots –– how can it continue? In that respect and others, I hope my memoir helps people learn a little more about how we’re much more alike than different.

“Desert Wind: My Life in Qatar”

Book reading by author Peter Fortunato. Tuesday at The BorgWarner Room

Tompkins County Public Library at 101 East Green Street.

(1) comment

Muhammad Abdel Rahman

This man is rude to Arabs in Ithaca! Why is he speaking for Arabs? Iftoo!

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