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 the college were little more than a series of gray dormitory complexes, networks of 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 bald-headed northerner dubbed The Miserable Manc, a well-meaning but permanently deflated complainer known as Suicide Rob and a happy-go-lucky new age hippy type christened 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 cushy it was just a few weeks before the unvaried drudgery 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. There was only so much one could take.
College living was simple and quiet. A TV in the lounge allowed us to eagerly tune in to weekly Premier League matches, while on Sundays we forced ourselves through a nothing-better-to watch Hallmark channel movie. Practical jokes between the two of us also helped relieve some boredom. Mostly childish staples like a pot of water precariously placed on a door and sugar sprinkled over the bed sheets. A much-needed shoe hidden on top of the ceiling light. One restless night, totally unable to sleep, I managed to completely tape over Scott’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 played out long involved sessions of Championship Manager, the classic football game for the PC. 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 us play for twenty four hours straight. By the end we’d completed a full season and were in actual pain through exhaustion.
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 an equally devilish cackle. Angela was her partner in crime, a plump frog-faced woman with a Mrs. Doubtfire laugh and the overall air of an eccentric great aunt. Despite the generation gap the three of us somehow hit it off through a foreigners abroad, strength in numbers sense of camaraderie. ‘‘Killed another cockroach’’. ‘‘Struggling with the heat?’’. ‘‘Yep!’’. ‘‘Really miss bacon sandwiches!’’
We’d drink crappy cheap wine together, sharing our thoughts on life in Doha and our strange removed existences at the college.
‘‘Do you find the call to prayer beautiful or irritating?’’
‘‘You simply have to do the desert safari!’’
‘‘Bloody chicken and rice!?’’
From time to time we’d go out together. Weekly visits to a spectacular Lebanese Restaurant, 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 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 who was 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 just 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?’’
She’d also fallen out of love with teaching and often complained about 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 the job was mine.
The three of us also did coffee mornings at the mall and attended house parties across the city. One such gathering saw us celebrate the arrival of 2002, which today brings back blurry memories of a twirling Angela dragging an unwilling Scott into Habibi hell. Maz and I laughing so hard we were crying. Sparks between Kristin and l as we huddled together on an old sofa.
‘‘Morning ladies’’ I chirped, breezing into their lounge one morning armed with bread, salami and cheese. There was no response. 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. Then 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 so 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, polite smiles, the air heavy 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 who bored me immensely. A bird-watching pedant with a monotone voice that made me want to hack my ears off .‘‘I don’t believe it’’ he said 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 going on?’’ I asked, 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. 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 all wasn’t well in her friend’s head. 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 finally, a quiet reluctant 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 dug up all kinds of dirt on her. 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 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 sad for her too because she clearly wasn’t a well woman. What had happened to her over the years? How had things had gotten so bad?
Nowadays on the rare occasions she 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 was 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.