October 31, 2006
Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 10/31/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA
Shimmering monoliths of glass and steel towering over the white sands of Qatar reflect in the lenses of my sunglasses as I climb out of tour bus number three. I gaze up at the skyscrapers, so mysterious and conspicuous in the middle of the great desert nation, and I let out a little "Wow." I have seen cities; I was born in one. But this city is unique. The city of Doha is alive tonight. The pent-up energies of 100,000 people buzz in the humid, evening air. Great throngs of citizens, dressed in ceremonial finery, are gathered to recognize the last day of Ramadan. "EID MUBARAK" is sprawled across banners and posters and street signs as far as the eye can see. As the local clock strikes 8:00 pm, the city roars with joy. Amid the song and cheer the night sparkles from all sides with flash photography, glittering confetti, and streaming color ribbons and silk. I am thrown and shoved and trampled by crowds blind to the infidel on this, the first night of Eid, the holiest time of the Muslim year. Though not a Muslim, I can appreciate the release from a month of hardship and am, in my own secular way, celebrating a night of freedom.
As the sun goes down, my companions and I set out from the tour bus to explore the eye-popping diamond capstone of one of the richest nations in the world. This is the first of our four days of pass, an Army R&R program allowed to six-month deployers. We come together from all corners of the Middle-Eastern theater of operations, and yet we share a common disconnect from a place which bears so much painful resemblance to home. We recognize the cars, the lights, the decoration and festivity, yet we are the invisible people. We pass like ghosts or shadows through the dancing and parties. We feel like crashers, or unwelcome guests. Our drab t-shirts and track pants identify us as military to a wary crowd, who nod cautiously, if they take note at all. Though we have become used to being the relatively rich ones, here the petty contents of our wallets pale in comparison to the wealth doled out by a nation of millionaires unleashed from a month of sacrifice and starvation.
I swear that Benjamin Franklin frowns and looks around nervously as I hand him over to buy a Christmas gift for my daughter Jade. The man receiving him shoves the bill into a cardboard box under his register, apparently where dirty, foreign monies are hidden away until they can be reckoned with and converted. He mouths a quiet "Thank you" in English and flashes me a subtle, gold-studded smile. He knows I am using my Western cash to buy a heathen gift for my infidel child, and daring to do so on this night of nights. He will keep my secret as long as I move along quietly and promise to keep spending.
The combination-punches of familiar and unfamiliar continue. We drink Starbucks coffee, seated on huge pillows on the floor. I eat a grilled chicken salad at Applebee’s, where a great smiling Mickey Mouse poster points at me and laughs. When the check comes to the black-robed ladies at the next table, they pay it with neat stacks of multicolored Qatari cash from a shared briefcase doubtlessly given them by a shared husband. The stacks of cash fill the case, and it strikes me as not unlike a scene from a gangster picture, or a ransom caper with a character waiting to make “the exchange.” Is individuality and identity worth a briefcase full of cash? Though their faces are completely veiled, I can sense they have noticed me staring at their allowance. I hastily make an exit.
I hide in a Mazeratti dealership and quietly stave off the nine attendants who descend upon me. No, I don’t want any Chai, or a massage, or a cigarette while you sell me a sports car. I head back out to the streets and try to blend. I feel like a giraffe amidst the march of the penguins. I see a buddy of mine trying to buy mascara from a street vendor. The vendor keeps grabbing her arm and pulling her back to the mirrored shelves of colorful bottles and jars. He urges her to smell, feel and sample. He dabs at her cheeks and hair with drops of oils and lotions. She ducks and weaves like a prize fighter before finally pulling away with a polite backpedal and an apologetic nod. She sees me leaning against a kiosk speckled with Dari and Arabic flyers in tatters, and rushes to my side. She grabs my hand with an iron grip and smiles in a way that says “Let’s get out of here,” and drags me onto the sidewalk.
We walk and share our experiences and the wonderment of being in an alien place for a strange celebration, and we discuss the way that buildings and pavement and glass only make a setting. It’s the people that define a life. As we sit on a bench at the bus stop, a final display of cultural variety blows past. A fluttering wave of colorful, translucent robes settles around me like butterflies, and the smiling faces of a dozen children, boys in ceremonial caps and girls with their first veils, who have discovered a white-skinned giant with yellow hair and mirror-eyes. They pet my skin and knead my shoulders. They poke hesitantly at my lenses and chatter at me with earnest questions I do not understand. They giggle and push each other at me, as if I might swallow one of them. I smile back and tell them my name, and with dark eyes and furrowed eybrows they stare intently at my lips moving. The boys puff out their chests and jab with their thumbs to inform me of their names. The girls avoid eye contact and just tug at my fingers and sleeves. When I stand to catch my bus they gasp in unison, and giggle and blow away with the warm, evening breeze. “Eid Mubarak!” I call after them. I think I made their Christmas (so to speak).
The rest of our pass was quiet. We stayed on the R&R post, tanning and swimming in the pool. Doha is an amazing place, a random utopia of wealth and progress in a literal desert of starvation and desolation. It’s a break in the monotony and a surprisingly rich experience. Some people skip their passes. Don’t ever do that. I don’t think I’ll ever forget mine.