In Egypt, Rival Ultras Meet to Show Common Cause

Cross posted from the New York Times.

Ultras demonstrating outside the prosecutor general's office in Cairo on Feb. 15

Egyptian soccer ultras demonstrating outside the prosecutor general’s office in Cairo on Feb. 15.

CAIRO — Mere months ago, fans of Al Ahly and Zamalek clashed on the streets. On Sunday night they stood side by side, red alongside white, a hand of one often resting in unspoken friendship on the shoulder of another.

Thousands gathered in the shadows of Cairo International Stadium, where both sides play home matches, to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period that began after the Port Said stadium disaster on Feb. 1. At least 74 people were killed when supporters of the home team, El Masry, attacked visiting fans of Al Ahly, Egypt’s biggest club.

The Egyptian Football Association announced Saturday it had canceled the remainder of the domestic league season, which has been suspended since the violence in Port Said.

Hailed by organizers as the first such assembly of competing Ultras groups — the hardcore supporters clubs that back professional teams in Egypt, Italy and elsewhere — the meeting also marked the culmination of more than a month of dialogue between leaders of Al Ahly’s Ultras Ahlawy and Zamalek’s Ultras White Knights.

Conversations about the meeting began days after the incident, when members of White Knights appeared at a mourning ceremony at Al Ahly’s training ground to pay their respects to Ahlawy members who had died. At a protest two weeks later in front of the prosecutor general’s office in Cairo, the flags of the two hated rivals flew together.

On Sunday, speakers representing Ahlawy and White Knights vowed not to return to sporting stadiums until those responsible for the carnage in Port Said are brought to justice. Egypt’s parliament and attorney general are both conducting investigations. Ultras members have voiced skepticism that these will amount to anything more than white-washing of an incident many believe to have been orchestrated by the Egyptian police and the ruling military.

Ahmed, 20, a member of White Knights, said he was hopeful that the show of unity would jolt the authorities to action. “I expect that the government, after hearing what happened tonight, is so afraid,” he said. “So I think they’re going to bring the rights to the people who died in Port Said.”

But he warned, “If nothing happens, it will be a very big problem.” In the days after the fighting in Port Said, Ultras also battled security forces in Cairo and Suez, resulting in more than a dozen more deaths.

On Sunday there were also calls for an end to the fighting between opposing supporters that has dogged Egyptian soccer in recent years. Rani Fouad, a 21-year-old engineering student who has been an Ahlawy member almost since its inception in 2007, said his fellow Ultras were beginning to reject the violent tactics that, he argued, were introduced by hooligan elements within their ranks.

“Years ago, when the violence started between us and Zamalek, I started to say, ‘Why should we fight?’ ” he said. “Everyone should concentrate on his team and being loyal. I didn’t see it right to just think about fighting with others.”

This was not the first time the Ultras groups have joined in common cause. During the revolution last winter, members of Ahlawy and White Knights formed the vanguard of the resistance to the forces of the former president Hosni Mubarak. Once he fell, they soon trained their sights back on one another.

Those in attendance expressed confidence that this latest unity would prove more enduring than the last. Sameh Samir, a filmmaker who joined his friends in Ultras groups at the gathering, pointed to what he described as a crucial difference this time around. “In the revolution, they came together as individuals, but not as groups,” he said. “After Port Said, it’s everyone together.”

Still, he conceded, violence was not likely to disappear entirely from a scene dominated by young people, some barely in their teens.

“Youth don’t necessarily have a mentality of peace,” he said. “But I think it will be individual violence in the future, not group violence.”

The unprecedented scene Sunday should not have been all that remarkable. There is little beyond rooting loyalty that distinguishes Al Ahly and Zamalek fans. The old geographic and social fault lines that used to divide them barely exist anymore. Outside Ultras life, rival fans are sometimes close friends.

But for those here, the experience was hard to wrap their heads around. “It was so, so strange,” Ahmed said afterward. “I felt like I was in a dream.”

On the ride back toward the Metro station, the two sets of fans shared one of the rickety buses ordinarily used to transport them from the stadium after games. Unsurprisingly, on a vehicle packed with teenagers and early twentysomethings, the atmosphere was rowdy. But there was not a whiff of animosity in the air.

Standing in the aisle, Samir glanced at the mélange of competing T-shirts and jerseys, flags and stickers, and quipped, “If this had happened after a game before, the bus would have blown up.”


Labor Woes in an Islamist Parliament

From the March issue of Business Today Egypt.

Sipping tea on his living room couch, Mamdouh Al Habashi’s eyes light up as he recalls the start of his long career in activism.

“It was 1972, in the student movement, which shook the country at that time,” he explains, his voice rising. “Cairo University, Faculty of Engineers. It started in our faculty. And then spread out to the entire country. That was the first time I [was] arrested, by Sadat.”

It’s the day before the much-hyped general strike to mark the one-year anniversary of deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation and up the pressure on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to step aside. But the leftist crusader who cofounded the Egyptian Socialist Party (ESP) last year seems less enthused when the conversation turns to the next day’s events.

For one thing, his expectations aren’t exactly sky-high.

“It will not turn to be a real general disobedience, at least not in the foreseeable future, because everything is now liquid and in motion. Perhaps something will happen that will change the atmosphere. Under these circumstances, it will start, but it will not be followed 100%. And not all over the country.”

Habashi’s caution is well-founded. Since 1957, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser incorporated all of Egypt’s trade unions under a single government-run entity — the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) — and stocked its leadership with party stalwarts, organized labor has rarely made more than a ripple in an otherwise tidy sea of state-enforced obeisance.

Nevertheless, workers gained momentum in the last decade or so of Mubarak’s reign. Protests routinely targeted low wages, poor workplace conditions, and the regime’s privatization agenda. Between 1998 and the 2011 revolution, more than 2 million workers joined some 3,500 labor actions throughout the country. The best-known, a strike at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla Al Kubra in 2006, exacted unprecedented concessions from the government. Mahalla became a hotbed for labor unrest; on April 6, 2008, another flare-up left three workers dead at the hands of security forces.

Meanwhile, for the first time since 1957, independent unions began to challenge the ETUF’s monopoly. An open strike launched by employees of the real estate tax authority in December 2007 culminated the next year in the formation of a new syndicate, wholly autonomous of the ETUF. By the 2011 uprising, independent unions representing pension department workers, teachers and health technicians had formed.

Against this backdrop, organized labor seized the opening presented by last year’s upheaval. On January 30, five days after demonstrators first flooded Tahrir Square, the independent unions announced the creation of the first rival to the ETUF: the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FITU).

Invigorated in the uprising’s final days by strikes across all sectors of the Egyptian economy — textiles, media, transportation — the movement struck a death knell to the ancien régime. And in the weeks and months that followed, it continued to press its demands. A wave of labor actions swept the nation, trying Egypt’s already fragile economy, but resulting in a series of previously unthinkable victories.

In March, Minister of Manpower and Immigration Ahmed Hassan El Boraie recognized Egyptian workers’ right to establish independent labor
syndicates. Then in July, the government approved a LE 700 monthly minimum wage for public sector employees. The next month, the Cabinet agreed to enforce a 2006 court order calling for the dissolution of the ETUF board.

Perhaps most significantly, two months later in October, the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress (EDLC) became Egypt’s second independent labor federation. At present, the FITU and EDLC together represent more than 300 trade unions, both older unions that have defected from the ETUF and new unions that have formed since the revolution.

Joel Beinin, the former Director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo and an expert on Egyptian labor, views this as a significant step forward for Egypt’s nascent democracy.

“The extent to which labor’s needs are satisfied and labor’s right to independently organize and put forward demands in its own name are satisfied will say a great deal about the extent of substantive democracy and social justice that Egypt will enjoy in the coming period,” he says. “[And] on the most basic issue of trade unionism, there’s been huge success.”

In Egypt’s factories and shops, then, organized labor is at its strongest since at least the 1950s. But it is a different story in the corridors of power, where Islamist parties’ resounding victory in the parliamentary elections and the anemic performances of their leftist rivals, particularly socialist parties like Habashi’s, have left labor activists feeling left out in the cold.

Mostafa Bassiouni, a prominent socialist journalist, is blunt in his assessment of the current parliament. “There’s no political power that represents the labor movement,” he says. In the Islamist majority, labor sees an antagonist nearly as great as the former regime.

“The Islamists — and I am now [using] their own wording — declared, many of their leaders, the economic line of the Mubarak regime was just perfect,” says Habashi. “The problem wasn’t the economic policies of the Mubarak regime. It was just the corruption that made them fail. So they are insisting on continuing the same policies of the Mubarak regime.”

According to Beinin, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) controls nearly half the seats in the People’s Assembly, has long been a foe of organized labor. As far back as the 1940s, he says, it has been involved in breaking strikes. In the 1980s, the Brotherhood rallied behind Mubarak’s rollback of rent control on agricultural land while in Parliament on the grounds that Islam supports private property rights.

“Their national leadership now, as pretty much always, consists of wealthy, or at least upper middle class people,” he explains. “These are not people who are personally inclined to be sympathetic to the needs of workers.”

The Brotherhood has underscored its pro-business, free market credentials in a slew of statements in recent months. “We have sought to reassure people that a free market in Egypt is the only way forward,” spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan told The National in December. And Deputy General Guide Khairat Al Shater told Bloomberg last summer, “We believe in a very big role for the private sector.”

FJP parliamentarian, Saber Abou El Fetouh, who chairs Parliament’s labor committee, acknowledges his party’s free market bent but insists that the FJP is an ally of labor, pointing to several reforms on the party agenda.

On the all-important question of the minimum wage — labor activists want to see it increased to at least LE 1,200 and applied to all workers — Fetouh claims that studies are first needed to determine the proper rate. But, he says, “LE 1,200 for the minimum wage is a proposal to which we wouldn’t object; we would like to see it set even higher than that.”

As for a maximum wage, another demand of labor, his embrace is wholehearted. “It’s important that we set a maximum wage because studies show that the money saved by a maximum wage, once reinvested into the payroll, allows for the minimum wage to be raised by up to 60%.”

He adds that the FJP is looking to bolster corporate regulation as well. “Egypt is the only country in the world that has no oversight over its stock market transactions, and of course that was in the interests of [Mubarak’s] National Democratic Party’s businessmen.” All of which should be music to labor’s ears. Not everyone, however, is convinced.

Count Beinin a skeptic. Within the last month, he claims, the Brotherhood has betrayed its pro-management sympathies. In a recent labor dispute in Helwan over wages and disputed firings, cement workers complained that the local MP, Ramadan Omar of the FJP, dismissed their grievances out of hand.

In incidents like this, Beinin sees an opportunity for labor to capitalize on disenchantment with Islamist representatives, many of whom won their seats thanks to strong working class support.

The key tests still lie ahead. The most critical revolves around a draft law approved by the Cabinet in November but since shelved by SCAF. The act would nullify the provisions of a 1976 law enshrining state control over Egyptian unions and officially recognize workers’ right to form independent unions. In early February, leftist MP and potential presidential candidate Abu El Ezz El Hariri introduced the law before the People’s Assembly.

Fetouh says the FJP supports the draft law, albeit with a few reservations — “firstly that the financing of the unions must come from the workers themselves, and they must prove that there is no external funding, be it foreign or domestic. Second, there needs to be some oversight to make sure that the moneyed business men do not set up unions, because although these unions claim to guarantee workers rights, they do the opposite. We would like to see more diversification of the unions, and so we are waiting for the summit on the amending the draft law.”

None of that is enough to satisfy Habashi, who dismisses the Brotherhood’s economic policies as “neoliberal par excellence.” After the left’s dismal showing in the election — the Revolution Continues Alliance to which the Egyptian Socialist Party belonged won just seven seats in the People’s Assembly (versus 235 for the FJP) — he says that labor’s fight will have to be waged from the outside.

“What we need besides the Parliament is organizing the people — raising the degree of organization in the entire society, raising the capacities of independent unions, of people’s committees, of unions in the different factories or peasant organizations or student organizations so that they control the work of the government.”

While that strategy has proven fruitful this past year, labor is still fighting a decidedly uphill battle. Even as it has registered historic triumphs, setbacks have come in equal supply. In response to the post-revolution surge of strikes and sit-ins, the Cabinet issued a law in March prohibiting labor actions that “damage the economy.” Military police have repeatedly been called on to break strikes.

And after dissolving the ETUF board in August and introducing a steering committee consisting of a mix of independent, state-affiliated and Brotherhood unionists to audit the federation’s finances, the government quickly backtracked. Facing resistance from a coalition of unions unhappy with the new setup, El-Boraie dissolved the committee and replaced it with yet another one headlined by figures from the old board.

Habashi isn’t giving up on winning in the political arena. He’s just taking the long view. The strategy, he says, is based on close collaboration with the as yet unproven independent labor movement, which Habashi calls “weak” and “inexperienced.” However, he adds, “They are the future. And we count on them. And we help them. And we support them.” Befitting the party he calls “the best and the biggest and most influential group of left intellectuals in the entire political arena in Egypt,” that means holding regular seminars and lectures to educate and mobilize workers.

In time, Habashi insists, organized labor will prevail politically. How much time? That he’s not saying.

“We are sure this point will come. But it’s not about us, we — the parties. It’s about the people who are going to recognize the fake, the façade of this Muslim Brotherhood.”

For the moment, he’s right to check his enthusiasm. Despite the endorsement of at least 120 labor groups, the general strike comes and goes almost unnoticed. Shops and businesses stay open. The Brotherhood — alongside fellow opponents of the strike — declares victory. Its official website cites the strike’s failure as “proof of the decline of revolutionary momentum versus popular concerns for security, stability and the economy.”

Argues Fetouh, “This stage requires that we give the parliament and the presidential elections a full chance to build a proper government and working economy in the interest of the Egyptian people.”

Barring any unforeseen shocks to the political system, it looks like he’ll get his wish. A full hand over of power by the SCAF to the president and Parliament could take place as early as June.

And that’s when the real struggle will surely begin.

Book Review: House of Stone

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East

By Anthony Shadid


In his New York Times dispatches from across the Middle East, Anthony Shadid—a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner—cuts a swashbuckling figure. In the last year alone, he braved tear gas and live fire in Egypt, was kidnapped by Qaddafi’s thugs in Libya, and secretly traversed Syria’s killing fields by motorcycle. House of Stone casts the correspondent in a softer light, recalling his 2007 return to his ancestral village in southern Lebanon to rebuild his great-grandfather’s abandoned home—and perhaps piece together his own wayward life in the process. At once outsider and native son, Shadid elegantly reflects on the violent splintering of the once-vibrant Levant and its uphill struggle to reclaim its dwindling notions of regional identity.

Editor’s NoteAnthony Shadid died of an asthma attack in February while reporting for theNew York Times inside Syria. Shortly before his death, he spoke with Mother Jones aboutHouse of Stone, Syria’s future, and the high cost of getting the story in a war zone. You can read Shadid’s interview with Mother Jones here.

Egyptian Protesters Detained at Soccer Match in Qatar

Cross posted from Huffington Post.

Egypt’s fractious politics reached the tiny Gulf state of Qatar on Friday night, as a group of protesters was removed from Gharafa Stadium in the capital Doha during the Egyptian national soccer team’s match against the Democratic Republic of Congo.

About midway through the first half, some 15 to 20 young men, identified by multiple Egyptian fans in attendance as members of Ultras Ahlway, the Ultras group of Cairo club Al-Ahly, separated from a large crowd in the stadium’s east stand and made their way behind the Congolese goal. From there, they began to chant against the Egyptian military and police, at one point invoking the familiar revolutionary cry, “Down, down with military rule!” They also raised banners reading “NOSCAF,” a reference to Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and another “ACAB,” Ultra parlance for “All Cops Are Bastards.”

Their chants were largely drowned out by jeers from other segments of the crowd. They were escorted within minutes outside the stadium by police. One of the banners lay face down on the ground nearby. Police refused to allow photography in the area.

It was unclear where the protesters were taken next. Qatar’s Ministry of Interior, reached via telephone, had no comment on the matter.

Among the large contingent of Egyptian fans in attendance, overwhelmingly expatriates working and living in Qatar, reactions were mixed.

“People come [to Qatar] to work,” said Mohamed Abdelkader, 26. “There’s no need to make problems.”

Amr Gamea, 27, cited the deep divisions among Egyptians — both in Egypt and abroad — in explaining the protest and ensuing backlash.

“There are two halves in Egypt — half with the SCAF, half against the SCAF,” he said, adding. “The picture of the Ultras is so bad in the media that it turns people against them.”

He said that the protesters were likely motivated by anger over the Port Said disaster of last month, which many argue was the handiwork of Egypt’s military government and police. At least seventy-four football fans, the vast majority Al-Ahly supporters, were killed after a pitch invasion by fans of the opposing team.

Mohamed Rostom, a 29-year-old architect originally from Alexandria, expressed sympathy for the protesters. “If they were allowed to chant, I would have joined them,” he said. “The Ultras are the real heart of the revolution.”

As for what fate they would meet, he could only speculate. “Perhaps they will be arrested, perhaps deported. I don’t know.”

The Egyptian national team was in Qatar this week for three friendly matches against African competition after its matches scheduled in Egypt were cancelled in the wake of the Port Said incident. Following victories over Kenya and Niger on Monday and Wednesday, respectively, Friday’s contest ended a nil-nil draw.

Football offers Egyptians in Qatar a taste of home

Cross posted from Egypt Independent.

DOHA — With its three friendly matches scheduled for Cairo last week scuttled by the Interior Ministry after the Port Said disaster, the Egyptian national football team has now gone almost seven months without competing on home soil. For the squad and its legions of supporters, that’s far too long. The resulting exile does, however, have at least one set of grateful beneficiaries.

As the starting lineups of Egypt and Congo emerge from the tunnel of Gharafa Stadium in Doha Friday evening for the final of Egypt’s three games in Qatar, the east end of the ground erupts. Turnout is sparse — perhaps a thousand in this 22,000-seat venue. But the crowd’s numbers belie its enthusiasm. Egyptian flags decorate the stands. Small kids with faces painted red, white and black join in the cries of “Masr!” A group of seven holds aloft placards spelling out “I ♥ EGYPT.”

For the fans — some of Qatar’s tens of thousands of Egyptian expatriates — these rare opportunities to glimpse Egypt’s sporting heroes offer a welcome taste of home. They’ve become increasingly frequent as of late. Egypt’s last game before this trip, a 2-0 loss to Brazil in November, also took place in Doha, just down the road.

“It’s great,” says Amr Gamea, a 27-year-old IT specialist. “All Egyptians love the country. So they smell the Egyptian air with the team coming over here.” Near the midfield stripe, a group of young men leads the crowd in chanting, “Great Egypt team! We have to give her our soul!”


Photographed by Aaron Ross

If their love for Egypt is unequivocal, their feelings about their adopted country are decidedly mixed. In many ways, it’s hard to imagine a place more different from Egypt than Qatar. The pace of life is slow, at times, crawling. The sidewalks in downtown Doha are close to deserted. You can walk for an hour without hearing so much as a beeping car horn. Social life is mostly confined to colossal malls. Only the constant din of construction machinery erecting Doha’s latest, sleekest skyscrapers lends the faintest hint of vitality to an otherwise lifeless urban tableau.

The quiet life suits many just fine. Ahmed Awad, 28, moved to Doha from Cairo five years ago and now works for the Qatari Football Association. He’s seated between two friends with an Egyptian flag that spans the length of them. “Everything is organized,” he says. “It’s small, but a very nice country.”

Many echo the sentiment. Amid the continuing upheaval in Egypt, Qatar represents an oasis. Crime is low. The streets are clean. Political unrest is practically nonexistent.

Like almost all of Qatar’s temporary residents, who comprise three-quarters of its 1.8 million residents and more than 90 percent of the labor force, Egyptians come here for a single reason: to tap into Qatar’s booming economy, which boasts the highest GDP per capita in the world. Awad explains that in Qatar, an Egyptian can expect to make anywhere from three to five times his salary back home.

Beyond work, though, Qatar holds few attractions for most expats. One cab driver, a Ugandan, puts it bluntly: “We come here to get our money, and that’s it.”

Indeed, the tranquility of Qatari life elides easily into boredom. Asked what there is to do for fun around here, Awad grimaces. “Fun?” he repeats, and then laughs a little. After some thought, he suggests the mall, or perhaps the beach if it’s not too cold.

“There’s no lifestyle here,” his friend, Xenia chimes in. She moved from Greece last year to work on the Pan Arab Games and decided to remain because of Greece’s own political and economic woes. She hasn’t had the easiest time of it so far. As a woman, she says, decent-paying work isn’t easy to find.

Most importantly, for the Egyptians interviewed, Qatar is not, and will never be, home. All hope to return to Egypt, and sooner rather than later. Even Abdul Latif, a 45-year-old sales manager at Ready Mix who says Qatar is “very, very, very good” wishes to go back to his hometown of Mansoura as soon as possible. “If things in Egypt are good after next 25 January, I will,” he says.

The expat community remains intimately connected to life back in Egypt — sending back money to family members, paying regular visits and, of course, closely tracking political developments. So it’s no surprise that, besides football, politics constitutes the primary talking point. Nor does it come as a great shock when 15 or so young men, identified by witnesses in the crowd as members of Ultras Ahlawy, begin to chant against the Egyptian military and police from behind the Congolese goal before being whisked away by security.

Predictably, the fans in attendance express a range of reactions. Mohamed Abdelkader calls the protesters “bad guys” and condemns the outburst of political theater. “People come [to Qatar] to work,” he says. “There’s no need to make problems.” His friend, Mahmoud Mohamed, adds that the continuing demonstrations back in Egypt only destabilize an already precarious situation.

Mohamed Rostom, new to Qatar after five years in Dubai, takes a different view. Of the military, he says, “Sometimes they do good, sometimes bad,” but he identifies with the demonstrators. “If they were allowed to chant, I would join them.”

The temporary distraction, however, is quickly forgotten by just about all, who promptly divert their attention back to the match. They try to rally Egypt to a third and final victory to close out the tour, but to no avail. The game ends in a nil-nil draw.

It’s no matter. The crowd leaves in as high of spirits as it arrived. Back at the team’s hotel, young fans stream into the lobby, hoping to get a picture with their favorite players. No one goes home empty-handed.

Two thousand kilometers might separate the expat community from home, but if anything, distance has only deepened the sense of attachment to Egypt and those who represent it. Even among those here for years, there is no question where their loyalties lie.

“There is one team for all Egyptians,” says Mohamed Zein, a 25-year-old advertising administrator, who has lived in Qatar for the last four years. “This is the team for our country.”

Qatar Is Very Boring

I’m in Doha, Qatar on a reporting trip. I’ll save the details of what I’m doing here for now. Suffice it to say, it’s soccer-related. Stay tuned for more in the near future.

I do feel compelled to share a few impressions of Qatar, though. I’ve been walking around the past two days, and ideas for ways to explain just how boring this place is keep popping into my head, and well, I needed to get a few onto the page. If any Qataris are reading this, please don’t be offended. It’s not you; it’s Qatar.

It’s hard to imagine a city more different personality-wise from Cairo than Doha. Or with less personality. This was immediately apparent when I stepped outside of the airport on Tuesday night and instead of a couple hundred cab drives shouting at me and trying to take my bags off my hands, there was only a well-lit sign in English, instructing me to turn right to find the taxi line. There, I found a row of three light green Karwa taxis (the only real taxis you’ll see in Qatar, more or less).

After settling into the front seat, I hesitated a second, waiting for the cab driver to ask me where I was going. He didn’t, so I told him. “Yes,” he responded, as if he psychically knew. After a couple minutes of silence, I asked how far my hotel was. “Not far,” came the reply. I sensed our conversation was over.We continued along the almost-deserted three-lane boulevard–that, flanked by gated properties and the bay, somehow evoked the upscale sterility of Boca Raton, except much worse–for a mile or so, until we arrived at my bargain-rate hotel in the “old” section of town.

I put “old” in quotes because here that label would appear to apply to anything built more than five years ago. Doha seems to consist almost entirely of construction projects and recently-completed construction projects, producing a highly depressing mix of ugly buildings and dirt-filled lots.

Downtown Doha

I spent most of the day yesterday hanging around a much nicer hotel-cum-shopping mall in the heart of downtown, which, despite its fairly extensive selection of restaurants and stores selling luxury goods is attached to another mall. A huge one, in fact–aptly called City Center–where just about all social interaction in the city seems to take place. After walking for a half-hour in the vicinity of the hotel looking for a place to eat lunch, I had to retreat to the mall and content myself with Chinese food from the food court.

After another unfruitful walk a few hours later, I returned to the hotel and asked the man at the front desk, perhaps a bit too pretentiously: “What do people do around here for fun?”

“Well,” he replied, considering the question carefully, as if “fun” was a novel concept, “what do you want to do?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Like where do people hang out at night?”

“There’s a market where there are some cafes,” he offered.

I haven’t made it out there yet. I had some reporting to take care of last night. I promise to return to this space with a full apology to all of Qatar if it turns out to be the most happening market in the world.

I suspect not. If there’s one saving grace to this place, it’s the people, who are, by and large, extremely hospitable. They’re also, by and large, very bored. Overwhelmingly South Asian (although there are plenty of Egyptians too –something on that to come in the next few days), with Qataris only comprising 13% of the population and Arabs 28%, many have been here for 5, 10, 15 years even. When I ask how they like it here, I get, at best, a resigned shrug, at worst, a quasi-diatribe on how intolerable things are.

Of course, these expats do not come for a hopping nightlife or a sense of community. They come to make money, driving a taxi or working in construction or human resources or the oil and gas industry. My cab driver last night, a young Ugandan, put it succinctly: “We’ve come to get our money, and that’s it.” He was recruited in Uganda, along with some friends, by the taxi company, which paid for his airfare and secured him a work visa.

“There’s no lifestyle here,” one woman, who recently moved to Qatar from Greece to get away from the the upheaval there, told me. “But it’s peaceful, and it’s orderly here.”

Most want to leave as soon possible (though some do say they want to stay, citing peacefulness an orderliness). But many get stuck, saddled with the responsibility of supporting their families back home. That was the case with my cabbie just a few minutes ago who went off about the indignities of life in Qatar, including not being allowed in the mall on Fridays and Saturdays as a bachelor.

Before heading off to the outskirts of Doha last night to the Egyptian national team’s game against Niger (whoops, I’ve given it away!), I went to the mall in search of a restaurant showing Qatar’s World Cup qualifier against Iran in Tehran. I couldn’t find one until I happened upon a sports bar, its windows tinted. Outside, the gentleman  minding the door asked for ID and proceeded to scan my passport. I stared at him incredulously for a second, before recalling Qatar’s obscenely restrictive alcohol laws. Inside was a proper sports bar, with a decent selection of spirits and more flat-screen TVs than I could count. I hadn’t been planning on having a drink, but I gratefully accepted the bartender’s offer of a beer.

I savored it, lamenting the fact that most Qataris couldn’t do the same. In no place without alcohol has alcohol been so badly needed.