Angela Habibi, a short story from Qatar.
In the summer of 2001 I boarded a near-empty Qatar Airways flight to Doha. Reuniting with my family who’d recently moved there for my father’s new job, it was my first time living abroad.
The residential blocks of Qatar Aeronautical College were grey, characterless slabs that looked virtually identical. In fact, the only way of telling them apart was by the large, black building numbers painted above the main entrances. Moreover, things were equally uniform inside with each floor home to a series of long, empty corridors. It was in these hospital-like passageways that QAC’s English teachers lived in complimentary rooms that came with their working contracts.
‘‘It doesn’t look like much, but it’s actually pretty cosy’’ said Scott, almost apologetically, as we stood outside my new digs on the 3rd floor of Block 5. I’ve made a mistake, I thought flatly, my suitcases slumped at the door like nervous creatures reluctant to go in.
When I arrived in Doha I initially shacked up with my family in the luxury of an expat compound called Beverly Hills Garden. Life had been pretty sweet there with its swimming pool, fully fitted gym, saunas and squash courts. But now, having settled into a teaching job, the time was right to strike out alone and claim some independence. Especially as my employer was offering free lodgings.
Scott was a school friend of mine who’d come to Doha specifically for a teaching job with the college. Our rooms were next door to each other, set around a small common area that we shared with the floor’s other occupants. The first guy I met was Lee, who we soon nicknamed The Miserable Manc. This was due to the fact that a) he was always thoroughly miserable and b) he came from Manchester.
There was also a well meaning but self pitying man known as Suicide Rob. You name it, Suicide Rob had a half-glass-empty view of it. As much as we liked him, Rob’s relentless woe-is-me vibe soon started wearing thin. Finally, and easily my favourite of our neighbours, was Tim. Everybody had a nickname it seemed and his was The Yeti due to his plentiful and somewhat sporadic facial hair. Finally, thank the lord, we had someone who was a happy go lucky type. When he wasn’t teaching, one could usually find Tim in the common room strumming on his guitar. He had a particular talent for Paul Weller tracks and was able to knock off note perfect renditions of Wild Wood and Country.
Aside from free accommodation, another QAC contract perk was complimentary breakfast, lunch and dinner at the college cafeteria. Initially this sounded wonderful! However, it was just a few weeks before the unvaried drudgery of the menu wore us down. Monday: Chicken & rice. Tuesday: Rice & chicken. Wednesday: Chicken without rice. Thursday: Rice without chicken. And so on. I’ve gotta say, it’s a sad situation when you have to routinely turn down free food.
College life was simple and quiet. A TV in the lounge allowed us to tune in for English Premier League football matches. On Sundays we might force ourselves through a nothing-better-to-watch Hallmark Channel movie. Practical jokes between Scott and I also helped relieve the boredom. The order of the day was mostly childish staples like a pot of water precariously placed on a door. Or perhaps some sugar sprinkled expertly over the bed sheets.
One morning, after a frantic search, Scott might discover a much needed shoe hidden on top of the ceiling light. Another restless night, totally unable to sleep, I managed to completely tape over my flatmate’s door with a wad of local newspapers. Ridiculously pleased with myself, I was even on hand to photograph him as he broke his way out the following morning. Scott was certainly a good sport about it.
We spent a criminal amount of time playing Championship Manager, the classic PC football management game. Armed with beers and untold amounts of snacks, we battled through long eventful careers with hotly contested title races, bug-eyed cup runs and smash-and-grab transfer windows. Unforgettably, one marathon weekend even saw Scott and I play for twenty four hours straight! By the end of that insane period we’d completed a full season and were both mentally and physically exhausted.
In between these self induced comas I somehow forged unlikely friendships with a pair of middle-aged English women who lived one floor beneath us. Maz was a slim, chain-smoking divorcee with a wicked sense of humor and a devilish cackle. Angela was her partner in crime, a plump, frog-faced woman with a Mrs. Doubtfire laugh and the general air of an eccentric great aunt. Despite the obvious generation gap, the three of us somehow hit it off through a foreigners abroad, strength in numbers sense of camaraderie.
“Killed another cockroach today Leighton!’’
‘‘Struggling with the heat?’’ ‘‘God, yes!’’
‘‘Really miss bacon sandwiches!’’
Angela, Maz and I would drink cheap wine together and share our thoughts on life in Doha and our strange, removed existences at the college.
“Maz, do you find the call to prayer beautiful or irritating?’’
‘‘Leighton, you simply HAVE to do the desert safari! Let me get you the guy’s number’’.
‘‘Bloody chicken and rice!? I can’t do it anymore!’’
From time to time we’d go out into the city together. There were weekly visits to a spectacular Lebanese restaurant and a night out at a new hush hush, underground club. There would be beer and dancing and a cautious but amiable mix of Western and Arabic clientele. It was in this environment that Angela became literally transformed! Crazy for the hypnotic beats, pounding drums and soaring violins of Arab pop, her flower-dress school ma’am image literally melted away on the dance floor! Watching Angela buck and groove to the rhythms wasn’t what you would call a pretty sight. But she had such a great time doing it you couldn’t help but smile and nod along.
For Angela, the king of this intoxicating scene was Amr Diab, a chiseled Egyptian superstar who’d just released a massive hit album, Aktar Wahed. Diab’s songs were emotive tales of love bursting at the seams with the repetition of “Habibi”, an Arabic word meaning beloved, friend or darling. At QAC Angela would often glide into the lounge humming one of his tracks and habibi-ing herself into a blissful coma. It was always quite the sight, hence Maz and I couldn’t help but exchange amused glances.
As a result of Angela’s new passion, we started calling her Angela Habibi, a nickname she was more than happy to embrace. For me this brought on the idea of an alter ego, a metamorphosed pop fiend who was a prisoner to the dance floor. Albeit a willing prisoner, one who happily held out her hands and begged to be cuffed. Throw away the key, see if I care.
But it wasn’t all song and dance with Angela Habibi. She also had wild and unpredictable mood swings and days where she’d plod around bemoaning the absence of a man in her life. Someone she could passionately habibi with into the wee hours of the morning. Furthermore, our efforts to cheer her up and assure her that one day she’d meet the right guy fell on deaf ears. ‘‘Oh come on… look at me!’’ she once said angrily, gesticulating to herself with a sneer of pure self loathing. ‘‘I mean seriously… who wants THIS?’’
To compound matters, she also claimed to have fallen out of love with teaching and routinely complained about the school and her students. She even hated the numerous private jobs she’d taken on around Doha. One of these, she told us, was a one-on-one class with a teenage prince straight from the royal house of Thani! ‘‘The money is AMAZING!’’ she admitted one afternoon, pouring Maz and I tea in the communal kitchen. ‘‘But the kid’s a little shit, just sits there yawning. Won’t even look at me sometimes’’. I nodded politely, secretly wishing I had such a problem.
Maz, Angela and I also did coffee mornings at the mall and attended a few parties across the city. One such gathering saw us celebrate the arrival of 2002 with a big New Year’s Eve house party. The host was a larger than life character known as Aussie Kev. Outside of English teaching, Kev was also a talented painter, amateur comedian and professional party thrower.
Kev’s daughter Kristin was visiting for New Year’s and that night was the beginning of a short romance between her and I. Despite this exciting development, my defining memory of that evening is of Angela twirling around the place in a hailstorm of habibi. She even dragged a scared looking Scott into it, which had Maz and I laughing so hard we were almost crying.
‘‘Morning ladies’’ I chirped, breezing into their lounge one morning armed with bread, salami and cheese. However, I received no response. Only two serious faces, whispered concerns, hands clasped together. ‘‘It must be the cleaner’’ said Angela, with a sad shake of her head. ‘‘We should tell administration, this can’t go on’’. Maz didn’t say anything. She just sat there smoking, eyes to the floor. ‘‘What’s going on?’’ I asked.
“It must be the cleaner’’ said Angela, with a sad shake of her head”.
Apparently a number of things had gone missing from Maz’s room. Small personal items such as a comb, an ornament and a cheap necklace. Finally, some money disappeared from her purse. Initially she’d wondered if it was her imagination, a case of forgetfulness. But then a ring belonging to her late mother disappeared from a drawer and now alarm bells were ringing loud and clear.
The last time I saw Angela Habibi we were at The Lebanese restaurant gorging on a heavenly spread of fresh fish, hummus dipped bread and dripping kafta. She was cheerfully moaning about her little Qatari Prince. ‘‘Called me fat the other day! I’ve really had enough’’. But otherwise the atmosphere was subdued, with Maz especially quiet. Picking at her food with polite smiles, the air was thick with untold concerns and unasked questions.
A few days later I got a call from Maz. It was mid morning and I’d only been awake a matter of minutes. ‘‘Can you come down?’’ When I arrived she was with Les, a doddery, middle-aged Englishman who was into birdwatching and collecting stamps. ‘‘I don’t believe it!’’ he exclaimed, scratching his head, pacing up and down the room. ‘‘I just don’t believe it’’. Maz looked up at me with a white, tired face, cigarette smoke looping up to the ceiling in thin rings. ‘‘What’s happened?’’ I sighed, dropping onto the settee. ‘‘Where’s Angela?’’
‘‘What’s happened?’’ I sighed, dropping onto the settee. ‘‘Where’s Angela?’’
‘‘She’s gone’’ replied Maz with a regretful half smile, tears in her eyes. I breathed in and braced myself for what was to come. The comb… the necklace… the ring… plus some other bits and bobs found stashed in Angela’s room. Maz had been having doubts and concerns for a while. She’d been living with Angela’s mood swings long enough to know that all wasn’t well in her friend’s head. There were things she’d said that sounded off. Stories she’d told that just didn’t add up. Upon the discovery of her stolen belongings, college management had been informed. Consequently the police paid a visit and Angela was confronted. There had been a big scene with passionate denials followed by a long, ashen-faced silence. Eventually, she gave a quiet confession.
Although Maz decided not to press charges, it was still game over for Angela Habibi who was fired by the college. QAC’s head of recruitment was a grouchy Irishman called Mickey, and it was he who subsequently dug up all kinds of dirt on Angela. She’d been dismissed by a previous school for stealing money from a cash register. ‘‘A long history of thievery’’, he told Maz. ‘‘Clinical depression. Compulsive liar’’. He’d even contacted the Qatari royals about her so called private job teaching the young prince. But the family claimed to have never heard of Angela. Moreover, they explained that the boy did have a private teacher, but that he was an elderly gentleman from Australia.
‘‘A long history of thievery’’, he told Maz. ‘‘Clinical depression. Compulsive liar’’.
The days that followed were surreal as we all went about our daily lives in a soundless daze. Like the deepest of sleeps, swimming underwater. Things were never quite the same again. Maz and I still hung out from time to time, but there was a tiredness to it. As for Angela, I was shocked… appalled… let down. But I also felt sad for her, because at the end of the day she clearly wasn’t a well woman. What had happened to her over the years? How had things gotten this bad?
Nowadays, on the rare occasions Angela Habibi pops into my head, I try to concentrate on the positives. Shared cake and coffee in the lounge. Her cascading laughter, which could fill the room and break out into the surrounding corridors. And of course there would alway be habibi. A short, simple word that served her well as a fleeting escape from her demons.
‘Angela Habibi’ is the eighth and final chapter of my short story series The Qatar Collection.
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