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 little more than gray characterless slabs, each building an identikit of long, empty corridors with small simple rooms set around a communal lounge and kitchen. ‘‘It doesn’t look like much but it’s actually pretty cosy’’ said Scott in an almost apologetic tone as we stood outside my new room.
I’ve made a mistake I thought flatly, my suitcases slumped at the door like nervous creatures reluctant to go in. When I first moved to Doha I’d shacked up with my family in the luxury of Beverly Hills Gardens. A beautiful expat compound with a pool, fully fitted gym and squash courts. Life had been pretty sweet.
But now, having settled into a teaching job at a local language institute, the time was right to strike out alone and claim some independence. Luckily my decision was made a whole lot easier by my employer’s offer of free lodgings within the college itself.
Scott, an old friend also teaching there, lived in the room next to mine. We shared the floor with an intimidating northerner from Manchester dubbed The Miserable Manc, a well-meaning but permanently deflated complainer known as Suicide Rob and a happy-go-lucky new age hippy type, Tim, who we referred to as The Yeti due to his plentiful and somewhat sporadic facial hair.
Free breakfast, lunch and dinner could be claimed at the college cafeteria. While this initially sounded wonderful, it was just a few weeks before the unvaried drudgery on offer left us in the gloomy predicament of having to turn down free food. Monday – Chicken & rice. Tuesday – Rice & chicken. Wednesday – Chicken without rice. Thursday – Rice without chicken. And so on.
College life was simple and quiet. A TV in the lounge allowed us to eagerly tune in to English Premier League football matches, while on Sundays we forced ourselves through a nothing-better-to-watch Hallmark Channel movie. Practical jokes between Scott and I also helped relieve some boredom. The order of the day was mostly childish staples like a pot of water precariously placed on a door, or maybe 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. One restless night, totally unable to sleep, I managed to completely tape over my flatmate’s half-open 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.
We spent a criminal amount of time on involved sessions of Championship Manager, the classic PC football management game. Armed with beers and untold amounts of snacks, we battled through long eventful careers; a bug-eyed daze of cup runs, hotly contested title races and agitated smash-and-grab transfer windows. Unforgettably, one marathon weekend saw Scott and I play for twenty four hours straight! By the end of that insane spell we’d completed a full season and were mentally and physically exhausted.
In between these self-induced comas I somehow forged unlikely friendships with a pair of middle-aged women from England who lived one floor down. 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 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?’’ ‘‘Yep!’’. ‘‘Really miss bacon sandwiches!’’
We’d 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!?’’
From time to time we’d go out together. There were weekly visits to a spectacular Lebanese Restaurant and a night out at a newly opened but illegal underground club. There’d be beer and dancing, 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 melted away on the dance floor as she bucked and grooved to the rhythms. It wasn’t what you would call a pretty sight, but she was having such a great time you couldn’t help but smile and nod along.
For Angela the king of this intoxicating scene came in the form of Amr Diab, a chiseled Egyptian superstar who’d just released a massive hit album, Aktar Wahed. His tunes were cauldrons of emotion; tales of unrequited love bursting at the seams with the repetition of “Habibi”, an Arabic word meaning beloved, friend or darling. Back at the college Angela would often glide into the lounge humming and habibi-ing to herself in detached bliss, Maz and I exchanging amused glances.
Soon enough 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 kind of metamorphosed pop-fiend, a prisoner to the dance floor. A willing prisoner though, 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. There were also 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. 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 self-loathing sneer. ‘‘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; particularly 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 us both 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. His daughter Kristin was visiting and that night was the beginning of a short but sweet romance between the two of us. And yet, dragging my mind back through those blurry, seventeen year old memories; my defining image of that evening is of a twirling Angela dragging an unwilling Scott into Habibi hell. Maz and I were laughing so hard we were crying.
‘‘Morning ladies’’ I chirped, breezing into their lounge one morning armed with bread, salami and cheese. There was no response, only 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 merely sat there smoking, eyes to the floor. ‘‘What’s going on?’’ I asked.
Things had gone missing from Maz’s room, small personal items. A comb, an ornament, a cheap necklace, finally some money 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 had disappeared from a drawer and now alarm bells were ringing loud and clear; a slapped face in the cold light of day.
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 mood was largely subdued, with Maz especially quiet. Picking at her food with polite smiles, the air was thick with 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 Northern man. ‘‘I don’t believe it’’ he exclaimed, scratching his head, pacing the room back and forth, back and forth. ‘‘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?’’
‘‘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, didn’t add up. Upon the discovery of her stolen belongings, college management had been informed, the police called, Angela confronted. There’d been a big scene with passionate denials followed by an ashen-faced silence. Then, eventually, a quiet confession.
Maz didn’t want to press charges but nevertheless it was game over for Angela Habibi, who was fired by the college. The head of recruitment, a blotchy-faced Irishman called Mickey, 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 they claimed to have never heard of Angela, explaining that the boy did have a private teacher, but he was an elderly gentleman from Australia.
The days that followed were surreal as we all went about our daily lives separately in a soundless daze. Like the deepest of sleeps, swimming underwater. And things were never quite the same again. Maz and I still hung out from time to time, but there was a tiredness to it, a kind of indeterminate haze to our dynamic. As for Angela, I was shocked… appalled… let down. But I felt sad for her too, because she clearly wasn’t a well woman. What had happened to her over the years? How had things gotten so 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 as a fleeting escape from her insecurities. Time off from her inner turmoil, an all-too-short vacation from herself.
‘Angela Habibi’ is the eighth and final chapter of my short story series The Qatar Collection.