Just Doha Things

Doha is a funny place. Many of the city’s oddities result from the rapid urbanization that has transformed Doha from a desert to a metropolis over the last few decades. During my time here, I’ve been keeping track of some of these little Doha things that have surprised me, so I thought I’d share them now.

Doha hardly has any crime. For example, there are free mobile charging stands along the Corniche (waterside promenade). People will leave their smartphones at these stands and walk away for a little while, and no phones are ever stolen.

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The “birdhouse” at Katara Cultural Village, a still-developing non-residential area of the city with restaurants, a beach, cafés, an amphitheater, and a small exhibition hall.

No one drinks the tap water. According to my Lonely Planet, the tap water is safe, but according to the Lancet health study, the water quality is not up-to-snuff. This whole month, I’ve been drinking from plastic bottles or the water cooler at the house.

The more elaborate malls have ice rinks in them year-round. I had always associated ice rinks with being outside at Christmastime (unless you’re at Chelsea Piers for a fifth grade birthday party).

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The beach at Katara Village, closed for the night. Note the dress code restrictions posted on the board – I couldn’t wear my swimsuit here!

I’ve seen lots of American brands and stores here: Coldstone, Starbucks, Shake Shack, Bath & Body Works, Old Navy, and more. Shake Shack was the real odd one out to me!

Thanks to globalization, Qatar celebrates “fall” even though it’s 95 degrees outside. Coffee shops have been selling pumpkin spice lattes and advertising pumpkin muffins with signs that say “fall in love with fall!” Of course, these flavors don’t really make sense without the cozy fall weather to match. Even worse, stores are advertising fall clothing complete with burgundy pullovers! It’s hilarious.

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The strip of Al-Wakrah Souq, the smaller and quieter cousin of the famous Souq Waqif in town.

There are basically no sidewalks. The streets here are wide avenues, built for big fancy desert cars and lots of traffic.

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I had to wait a long time to cross a major highway to get to this weird little oasis between office buildings.

There is so much diversity here! I’ve met people from Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Poland, Canada, the U.S., Canada, India, Kenya, and the Philippines. I’ve even met people born here in Qatar who do not identify as Qatari. I’ve met very few “real” Qataris, identified often by the traditional robes, who comprise ~13% of the population (the rest being expats and migrant workers from a diverse array of countries). Some of the people I’ve met have lived here for years without meeting any locals.

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With the girls at Al-Wakrah Souq! This souq is mainly restaurants, so we had dinner there.

There is no recycling whatsoever in Doha. After receiving mail my first week, I asked my host mom where to recycling the packaging. “Hah! Give it to me, I’ll toss it in the garbage,” she said. “Welcome to the Middle East!”

The movie theaters show all the latest releases, but they censor some movies. When The Wolf of Wall Street was shown here, it was 45 minutes shorter!

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I loved that Al-Wakrah Souq was by the water. I felt close to real nature for the first time in a while. Also with the boats and the sunset over the horizon, it was beautiful! (You’re not supposed to climb on them, though; this was taken right before a guard yelled at me to get off).

Mail is a bit odd in Qatar. No one has postal codes (zip codes). Individual houses don’t have mailboxes, so people are required to rent a P.O. box from the main post office branch.

There doesn’t seem to be a distinctive Qatari cuisine; rather, the cuisine is Arab/Middle Eastern and a fusion of Turkish, Lebanese, Israeli and even Indian cuisine.

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Post-nightfall in Al-Wakrah Souq.

Last but certainly not least, Aspire Park. This might be the most “only in Doha” place I’ve seen so far. Aspire Park is Doha’s largest park – a completely man-made area with cultivated grass, a man-made lake with imported ducks, man-made hills, and imported trees. It’s a beautiful and fanciful effort to bring a green oasis to Doha, imitating the natural parks of many American and European cities have natural park. But the imported trees look odd, scattered randomly throughout the park and bottom-lit like art pieces, never clustering together.

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One of the mist towers in Aspire Park, refreshing the park-goers with The Torch in the background.

There’s an odd coolness in the park which can only be explained by hidden air conditioning in addition to carefully stationed misting towers (see photo). The pathways in the park were built as a running track and spring up with rubber to meet your step; while unusual, it does feel much better than pavement. There are a couple rows of shiny, new exercise bikes, but they have no resistance and wide seats (I tried them!), so they’re difficult to use. Despite the effort to encourage exercise, the park has a set of free golf carts, driven by employees, to carry park-goers. There are two small buildings that lead to underground prayer spaces, one for men and one for women. The trees have hidden speakers that emit sounds of birds and crickets; the track is so perfectly ambient and realistic that I wouldn’t have noticed the lack of real birds or real crickets had my friend not pointed it out. Overall, Aspire Park is beautiful and well-done, but it grates against my ingrained definition of a “park.” It’s not an area of nature that was conserved, but rather a manmade attempt at nature; it’s not environmentally conservative (using lights and AC! Outdoors!); and it’s not as exercise-focused as it should be. People drive to Aspire Park, ride around in golf carts, eat at the restaurants there, and drive home. Amazing.

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Health post: Psychiatry in Doha

About a week ago, I met with a doctor at the Hamad Psychiatric Hospital in Doha, away from the main HMC hospitals in Medical City. The doctor I met with is Egyptian and has studied at the Weill Cornell Medicine school both here in Doha and in New York. She told me that the curriculum here exactly replicates the one in New York; the theory that is taught is the same, and the doctors learn how to apply that theory to their specific location (either New York or Doha) during their residency training with real local patients.

The government of Qatar has recognized mental health as an important issue via the National Mental Health Strategy for 2013-2018. The doctor I was talking to said that she’s observed the same distribution of mental health issues here as in the US. This is supported by the strategy, which states that “mental disorders in Qatar broadly reflect the WHO’s global estimates” (http://www.nhsq.info/app/media/1166. The most common mental health issues are anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric disorders like psychosis and bipolar disorder.

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The government’s “vision for mental health in Qatar.” (From the National Mental Health Strategy of Qatar, p. 5).

The doctor also suggested that overall, attitudes towards psychiatry and mental illness are the same across countries. In any medical setting, the psychiatry department will be seen as the one needing support the least even though it has the most challenging patients (many of whom are prescribed pills but lack the capacity to take them properly). Psychiatry will get the least amount of funding, respect, and support compared to other hospital departments due to a prevailing attitude that mental health isn’t as important as other medical fields. My interviewee said that even other doctors have a stigma against psychiatrists, despite expecting them to do a ton of work. She talked about how many non-psych doctors have a fear of the unknown, often sending medical patients with the slightest hint of mental issues to Psychiatry. So Psychiatry ends up with patients that have other physical issues and has to send them back to the appropriate medical department to be treated there first.

The doctor said that while the stigma against mental health is global, she has noticed it to be more prominent in Qatar than in New York. We agreed that might just be New York City, though, which is typically quite liberal and tolerant and not exactly representative of the rest of the country. “It’s a crazy city!” I said. “…Exactly,” said the psychiatrist, with a look. (Oops – I hadn’t meant that in terms of mental health, but more to say that the city is extremely diverse. I suppose I throw around the word ‘crazy’ too often, especially when telling people how New York City compares to Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö, or Doha.)

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“A study of public perceptions of mental health issues…has shown that stigma exists in Qatar. …This leads to unnecessary hospitalization and prolonged illness.” (From the National Mental Health Strategy of Qatar, p. 27).

The doctor pointed out that a lot of the stigma towards mental health is evident in the use of euphemistic names. At the NewYork-Presbyterian hospital, the psychiatry department is called “Payne Whitney.” In Hamad Medical City, the primary provider for mental health services is the “Rumailah Hospital.” She gave another example: the HIV/AIDS department at Weill Cornell is mysteriously called the “Center for Special Studies,” which reveals continuing stigma against the disease.

We also talked about the importance of doctor-patient compliance with mental health patients and how challenging that is. The doctor said that encouraging compliance with psychiatry patients is twice as important than with other medical patients, as such patients usually live at home (with less oversight than patients in hospitals), have long term illnesses that are treated mainly with pills, and have mental issues that make it more difficult to adhere to a specific pill-taking regimen. It is much easier if the patient has a specific care provider, typically a family member. Sometimes mental health patients come to the hospital for check-ups alone, and it’s hard to tell if they’re telling the truth when they talk about their medicine. Others don’t seek help at all. Even if they are cared for a by a family member, negative attitudes towards mental health can still come into play. The doctor told me that she’s heard of some patients being kept at home by their family members, locked in rooms out of shame. When this happens, such patients only end up at hospitals after their family can no longer care for them and the situation has gotten out of control.

I asked the doctor what would make things easier in Qatar and what was currently lacking. She said that she would like to see more outreach programs and more residential services, meaning more space (more beds) for the patients and more funds for nurses to visit patients at home. Resources for residential services are usually allocated to geriatric and non-psychiatric departments; again due to stigma and a perception of psychiatry being least important.

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Goals for 2018 compared to the issues observed in 2013. Qatar should be more than halfway to its goals by now. (From the National Mental Health Strategy of Qatar, p. 8).

The main focus, however, needs to be on reducing the stigma by normalizing mental health issues. The first step is getting rid of the euphemisms used to refer to psychiatric hospitals, services, and illnesses. The next step is awareness through advertisements and education. The doctor said that people in New York seemed more educated overall, which contributed to less of a stigma there. Also, when she was in the U.S., she noticed that ads for mental health treatments are everywhere. It’s true; you might watch an hour of television and see the same antidepressant ad twice. However, there are no such ads here. There’s less exposure to the idea of mental health issues and seeking treatment for them, meaning that it’s not as normalized. Overall, Qatar has to make more of an effort to educate its population about mental health through campaigns.

The doctor made a great point here about the health industry. She said that part of the reasons there are no ads here is because health isn’t an industry in Qatar – certainly not the way it is in the U.S. In Qatar, the government owns most of the hospitals and everyone is on the same insurance. There’s no view of medicine as a financial opportunity, so the hospitals don’t compete to be better. There’s no competition to offer a better experience for the patients or even for the doctors, who have no option for doing a residency outside of the Hamad Medical Corporation system. When there is a monopoly, there’s less of a drive to do better. (What’s interesting is that this could have happened in Sweden as well, where everyone gets healthcare for free and so the hospitals don’t have to compete for patients’ money. However, they all still work together to improve. One reason for this might be the tradition of user-centered design in Sweden). However, the downside to health being an industry as it is in the U.S. is, of course, the expense for patients. If you don’t have the money for hospitals or insurance companies, your health will suffer. Someone mentioned this in Sweden, too – that while the hospitals in the U.S. might compete to be better, it’s a competition driven by money rather than a want to provide the best patient experience. Conversely, Qatar is patient-centered in its recognition that everyone in the country deserves access to healthcare regardless of their ability to pay (also, there is a drive to improve patient experience, as reflected by the goals in the National Health Strategy).

“What about tech solutions for patients?” I asked. The doctor agreed with my observation that no one here uses health apps, which seems to be because people aren’t interested in preventative care or self-monitoring. She said that some patients would probably self-motivate to check blood pressure and glucose levels if given the option (probably diabetes patients). For any patient to use an app or other eHealth solution, however, it would have to be very simple. She suggested that it would only happen if doctors got involved and guided patients through downloading an app and using it, rather than patients finding such solutions on their own.

Finally, I asked about the effectiveness of following New York’s medical school curriculum in Doha. The doctor said that it works, because as I mentioned earlier, the theory is imported but application is localized. However, she told me about a class called “Cultural Competence,” which was about how to relate to patients with a different background from your own. “What if the class had been specifically about working in the Qatari cultural complex?” I asked. She said that the main topics of such a class would be the stigma against mental health in Qatar; the varying levels of medical literacy in the country; the history of tribal families; the need to expect and inquire about the use of traditional healing techniques; the role and education of the patient’s keeper (usually a maid or family member rather than a nurse); and the cultural idioms used in place of the official names for mental health issues.

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The new and beautiful naufar center. (From website homepage, www.naufar.com).

However, Qatar is developing, and as I mentioned, the government has the fairly new National Mental Health Strategy. Development in the country will help develop everything, including attitudes towards mental health. There is also the larger-scope National Health Strategy, which outlines many goals for improving Qatar’s health overall (www.nhsq.info). Though another example of a euphemism, “naufar” is a brand new treatment for people with behavioral disorders and substance abuse issues (http://www.naufar.com/About-Us). It has residential and non-residential facilities as well as an awareness program. The country’s mental health plan also discusses the need to reduce the stigma. Hopefully, ads, television, education, and awareness campaigns will begin to normalize mental health issues in Qatar and eventually reduce the stigma, which could have a real positive medical outcome in the country’s mental health.

Sunday, 10/30/16: This post has been edited to replace “Westchester Program” with Penn-Whitney and to add nuance to the doctor’s observation of the pros and cons of health as an industry vs. government-monopolized health as a service for all.

Weekends in Doha

The weekends here in Qatar are on Friday and Saturday, meaning that the work week is Sunday through Thursday. I’ve gotten used to it by now, but this small change really threw me off at first. I’ve learned that Friday-Saturday weekends are common in Muslim countries due to a special prayer on Fridays. It makes sense, but it’s one of those things I never expected to be different.

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This is MIA Park, to the right of the Museum of Islamic Art. Every Saturday throughout “winter,” there is a Bazaar there, an outdoor marketplace reminiscent of the tradition of shopping at souqs. You can see the shops at a distance here.
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MIA Park also has its own little crescent, like a curlicue off the larger Corniche (the waterfront crescent area of Doha). There is a small café there with a view of the glittering West Bay.

I’ve made some friends here in Doha, some through the social travel site Couchsurfing and others from the tech talk I went to. Many have asked me, “So how do you like Doha?” adding, “There’s nothing to do here, huh?”

I can see how after years and even months, going to the same air-conditioned malls and few sights would get boring in this small city. Even Villaggio would lose its novelty eventually. In Sweden, I went to approximately 25 different museums in 3 different cities; here, I’ve been to one, which means I’ve seen half of the museums in the whole country (there are several more planned for the future).

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Another view from the MIA Park crescent, where old-fashioned boats take tourists on the water.
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A street in Souq Waqif, the renovated ancient marketplace with traditional shops and many restaurants (one of Doha’s main attractions).
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A small outdoor tourist shop in the Souq. I wish I could get rid of that flare when photographing at night, but I just love these Arabian lights.
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Me in front of the pretty lights. (Photo credit: Downna).

But my new friends, and the family I’m staying with, have showed me the attractions that Doha does have, and I’m happy to say that I’ve seen a more fun city than I was expecting. While I know that I wouldn’t want to live here long-term, I’ve learned that I could live here, and that in itself is amazing to me.

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With Downna and Sarah at a restaurant in Souq Waqif.
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Pure Lounge, the bar we went to one night at the Hilton. There are very few bars in Doha, and no restaurants serve alcohol. The only bars legally allowed to sell are those attached to international hotels like this one. I was surprised to find nightlife in Qatar, but honestly, it’s not as exciting as it looks!

Finally, I played Ultimate Frisbee with some new friends last week, and I’m going back tomorrow. There is a small group of expats here that get together every week to play ultimate, and I was lucky to befriend the social coordinator of the group. Since there is only one group, they can’t play against other teams, but they still work hard and scrimmage well. I was so impressed to see the same skills here that I saw in college ultimate.

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We went to the beach in Qatar! Luckily there’s a quiet beach here where you don’t have to cover your shoulders and knees. (Photo credit: Downna).
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Post-beach seafood at a casual Filipino/Arabic restaurant. (Photo credit: Downna).

I think playing ultimate here will be my Qatar version of swing dancing in Sweden. It’s now a goal of mine to find something fun like this in each country that I go to – a local, social event that I find all on my own and then participate in.

I’m glad that I’ve been able to find social activities here in between project meetings. My progress has felt slow; I’ve had about five meetings here so far, most of them with doctors. I wish there were medtech companies here the way there were in Sweden, though I knew that wouldn’t be the case. While doctors provide an important perspective for my project, my engineering background makes me more interested in medical gadgets and user-focused devices than big hospital machines. Still, it’s good to know, and it certainly teaches me something about the attitude towards medical technology here if there aren’t any medical technology start-ups.

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The Pearl, a fancy artificial island in north Doha (well, I suppose most of this city is artificial). There are shops, apartments, hotels, and restaurants here – and lots of yachts!
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The Pearl is essentially a curved strip encircling this small body of water.

Health post: Going to the hospital

After my meeting with the doctor at Cornell, I met with one of his PhD students at the Hamad General Hospital. This hospital is one of eight owned by the Hamad Medical Corporation, HMC, the government system for health and medicine in Qatar. I spoke with Dr. Adnan Khan, from Pakistan, about health in Qatar in general and about the technology that the Cornell doctor brought into the country.

The technology of CCM, corneal confocal microscopy, allows doctors to diagnose complications associated with diabetes. As I’ve mentioned, diabetes is one of Qatar’s main health issues, and it’s important not just to diagnose and treat diabetes but also to understand its extent by seeing what complications it’s causing. These consequences include neuropathy (which can lead to foot amputation), heart attack, and stroke. A doctor wants to identify these issues as early as possible to stop them from getting worse and to know when patients are high risk. Such complications prematurely disable patients and increase their risk of dying.

CCM is an ophthalmic test to diagnose neuropathy. It is essentially a camera that lightly touches a patient’s cornea and scans it. The cornea has sensory nerve structures; for example, nerves in your eye make you tear up to expel dust particles. Diabetes patients with neuropathy will show far fewer nerves than healthy patients. The Cornell doctor told me that an older way of diagnosing neuropathy in diabetes patients was to perform a biopsy on leg tissue and send the sample to a lab, which is obviously more invasive and time-consuming.

I thought of Vibrosense, the Swedish startup, whose main product is a vibration tester for diagnosing HAVS (hand-arm vibration syndrome). It had the added benefit of being able to identify neuropathies in diabetes patients and was also a non-invasive device, though perhaps less accurate than CCM.

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Here, I was sitting in the Hamad General Hospital between the separated “Male Waiting Area” and “Female Waiting Area.” The hospital feels sophisticated and offers every service imaginable, as listed on the long directory by the elevator door.

While I was at Cornell, I asked the doctor about how he brought this technology to HMC; if he had to convince them to use it and if they were open about it. He said yes, he did have to convince them, and that they were open about the technology but not about him. When he was a newcomer two years ago, he felt that he made the Qataris insecure – as though they thought he was going to “steal their thunder.” I’ve noticed through many conversations and observations that the Qataris are painted as being both very proud and fearful, worried that outsiders will prove to be smarter and better than them, even though they invite these outsiders to learn from their expertise. But, as the doctor said, “the world is too small” to let ego come before health, and at the end of the day the technology is good, so now it’s here in Qatar.

With Dr. Khan in Hamad General Hospital, I had the chance to try the eye-scanning technologies. In addition to CCM, they had an OCT machine – “optical coherence tomography” – which also uses light to take 3D images of the eye but at a slightly lower resolution. Both processes were super easy as the “patient” and went very quickly. I could barely feel the CCM machine touching my eye. From Dr. Khan’s side as the user, the machine’s computer interface seemed more complicated. However, he knows the machine very well and navigated the system quickly, showing me my eye scans almost immediately.

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The OCT machine and associated computer monitor. The machine itself is made by Heidelberg Engineering, a German company.

Good news: I have all my nerves! So I don’t have neuropathy. If I did, I could be tested for diabetes; however, CCM and OCT can’t be used to rule out a diagnosis of diabetes, as diabetes does not always cause neuropathy right away.

I asked Dr. Khan how other patients had responded to the CCM and OCT technologies. He said that it was all about communication. He works hard to make them feel comfortable, talking them before and during the experiment, which makes them happy and open to using the technology. With some patients there’s a language barrier, so he’s not sure exactly how these patients feel, but they never react badly to the machines – probably because they know that their doctor recommended the procedure.

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Dr. Khan prepares the CCM machine.

I also discussed general health attitudes with Dr. Khan and his colleague, a woman from Australia – let’s call her Ann. Ann told me that the rich Qatari locals are pushy and act entitled to every service at the hospital at any time. She’s seen Qataris ignore being told that they have to wait for a room and go stand by an occupied room, demanding to be let in. Others haven’t accepted the timing of their appointments. There have been multiple times when Ann has told a Qatari, “Okay, your surgery appointment is at 8am,” and gotten the response, “Absolutely not. I’ll be asleep. I’ll come in at noon.” And what do you do with that?

So even when it comes to important surgeries, health is not a priority. There seems to be a certain laziness in the Qataris’ approach to health, evident in their refusal to come to the hospital early and with their “god willing” attitude. A common Arabic phrase is inshallah, meaning “god willing,” and it comes up in all sorts of situations. “Will I see you tomorrow?” “Inshallah!” (If God wills it!). It can mean sure, maybe, no – you get the idea. Ann said that people use it in response to illnesses, too. “I have diabetes? God willing it goes away!” Rather than take an active role in their treatment and medicine, they let fate decide; there isn’t a lot of motivation to be in control of one’s health.

We also talked about the diabetes, and Dr. Khan and Ann repeated what the Cornell doctor said – that the social culture here revolves around food. People offer food to each other at meetings, in offices and at home, and apparently it’s rude to refuse. However, there is a trend towards being sportier. Ann mentioned that malls are starting to have indoor “walking routes” (though I’m not sure where; I haven’t seen any at the five malls I’ve been to), and she pointed out that 38 Qatari citizens participated in the 2016 Olympics compared to 12 in the 2012 Olympics.

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Dr. Khan analyses my eye scans from the CCM machine. His left hand is close to the part of the machine that touches your cornea.

In contrast to the Qataris, the migrant workers are not so pushy. Ann has observed that the workers do whatever the doctor says, though they have poor health due to low wages (leading to buying cheap, unhealthy food) and a complete lack of health education or awareness (so they might have symptoms that they don’t notice). Ann told me about a technology initiative at Hamad General Hospital. The hospital bought expensive wristbands that act as blood pressure monitors. They are supposed to be more accurate and user-friendly than the standard blood pressure arm cuff, as they allow for longer-term and subtler monitoring. Some patients were given the opportunity to try both so that the hospital could determine if the wristbands were a good idea.

Ann asked these patients which they prefer more, the wristband or the cuff, and observed the following differences. The uneducated workers give her no preference, which might be due to a language barrier; she said that in response to “Which do you prefer?,” she often received the answer “Yes.” The more educated expats (from India, Pakistan, and so on) prefer the wristband because it is smaller and easier to wear. The local Qataris demand the watch and throw the cuff back at her. Dr. Khan laughed at this, agreeing that it fits his observation but suggesting that the locals, as a minority in their own country, have to be pushy to assert themselves. “If not, the Indians would take over!” he joked.

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Leaving the hospital, you see this gift shop with the most ridiculous and extravagant gift baskets. Ann lamented that almost all of the options are enormous baskets with far too many unhealthy chocolates.

Apparently, the blood pressure wristbands aren’t the only fancy technologies around.Dr. Khan and Ann told me that Hamad Medical Corporation has imported a ton of fancy technology for its hospitals, as it has the money to afford the best. However, much of it is sitting unused, as people aren’t trained to use the technology. So it seems that they import the right tech but not the technicians. What does that say about the attitude towards medical technology?

Italy in Qatar

There may not be Italians in Qatar, but there sure is a huge, Italy-themed mall here. Last night, I finally visited Villaggio, perhaps the most extravagant of all the enormous malls in Doha. By Italy-themed, mind you, I don’t mean that it has Italian stores; it has over two hundred stores for clothing, electronics, sports, food, and more, with all the popular brands (many of them American). No, by Italy-themed I mean that walking through Villaggio is meant to feel like walking through an old Italian village, with naturally curving streets, colorful homes, and clouds in the sky.

And, of course, the Venetian canal…

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Check this out! This is a mall, with a built-in canal!

The first mall I ever went to, and probably the only one I saw for years, was in White Plains, NY. The mall description matched its location – white and plain and pretty regular – but it was exciting to my young eyes. Imagine growing up with a mall that feels like it could have its own mayor!

With Villaggio’s bright lighting and painted blue sky, I felt like I was outside in the middle of the day in perfect weather. But it’s the canal that blew me away. Whose idea was that? How much work did they do to get the water in there? Is it worth it? Hilariously, there are gondolas when you come in, and you can pay for a gondola ride through the mall via canal. I didn’t see anyone doing that, though.

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Me and my “host brother,” 13-year-old Lucas. We’re at the entrance to the mall where the gondolas are!
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This logo really reminded me of “Toys R Us”…hm.

The mall, in addition to regular-sized stores, houses a cinema, IMAX theater, Virgin Megastore, a huge grocery store, and an indoor amusement park with an ice rink (ice rink! in Doha!).

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Probably my worse picture ever, but it gives you a sense of the “Gondolania” indoor amusement park. It manages to keep the Italian theme but also have a rollercoaster! Oh, and I forgot to mention the nearby bowling alley.
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American brands and stores are everywhere, including this weirdly fancy Shake Shack. 
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The area with Shake Shack was also the only part of the mall with a night sky.

Finally, Villaggio has a ‘fancy’ section for all the higher-end shops (Tiffany’s, Bulgari, etc.). Honestly, the whole thing is just ridiculous. It’s certainly an entertaining way to shop, and it’d be an easy place to spend a full day with kids. And since it’s too hot to walk outside in Doha, it makes sense to have such an elaborate indoors, climate-controlled experience. But I know it would drive me crazy before too long.

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The fancy area.
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One last look at the detailed Italian village façades.
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Leaving Villaggio, with the “Torch” tower nearby.

In case you were wondering exactly how rich this city is, I hope this gives an idea.

“Technovate” in Qatar

Last week, I went to an event at QSTP, the Qatar Science and Technology Park. QSTP was created by Qatar Foundation, the same organization that created Education City, and is situated close to those campuses. The Qatar Foundation seems to be everywhere in modern Doha, backing every large-scale endeavor to advance Qatar in the fields of education, technology, innovation, science, health, and medicine. The Qatar Foundation has access to such huge sums of money because it was created by the former ruler Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani and his second wife, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser (http://www.qf.org.qa/about/about).

Part of the goal of this rapid expansion, in addition to making Qatar “the best” (at everything, I presume), is to become less dependent on oil. The country is aware that the oil reserves that created its booming wealth might not always be there. In preparation, the Qatar Foundation is smartly using the country’s current wealth to invest in Qatar becoming a knowledge economy, as I referenced in my last post. Someone here told me that oil, and its associated wealth, “is all that stops Qatar from being a third-world country,” so I think the heavy investment is due to an awareness and fear of that fact.

QSTP is a home for technology companies, with an incubator and an accelerator, but it doesn’t seem to have seeded many Qatari start-ups. It seems like QSTP is still learning how to foster innovation. It has partnered with well-established foreign companies like Cisco and Microsoft and has been inviting prominent speakers for various tech talks. I went to the first-ever event for the new QSTP Technovate series, a lineup of “fireside chats” about various topics. The topic for the chat I attended was the role of the MENA region, Middle East and North Africa, in global innovation. It had nothing to do with health or medicine, but I was eager to get a sense of Qatar’s approach towards new technologies. How lucky that this event happened while I’m here!

The managing director of QSTP was the moderator with two guests, the founding director of UC-Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology and the CEO/co-founder of the venture capital accelerator 500 Startups. Over the course of an hour, the two guests answered various questions about their work and how to bring innovation to the Middle East.

The man from UC-B stressed that Berkeley’s program teaches people how to innovate by building the right mindset rather than by giving them a business plan. He said that “engineering has to be more than solving problems,” which I thought was interesting because my definition of engineering is solving problems. I think he meant that engineering should also attempt to prevent problems by building an integrated, working society.

As the conversation continued, Silicon Valley came up as a main focus. The topic of “How can the MENA region play a role in global innovation?” became “How can we replicate the Silicon Valley effect here?” I find it interesting, though not surprising, that Silicon Valley is still considered the unique heart of innovation and the inspiration for developers all over the world. Why does Silicon Valley, U.S.A, have to be the sole model for innovation?

The guests discussed at length why Silicon Valley and the U.S. have monopolized innovation; what factors led to innovation in that area; and how Silicon Valley is not the only place where innovation can occur, though it is still the dream land of start-ups for so many people. They said that Silicon Valley has 30,000 start-ups, a growth fostered by venture capital and the right government policies (I couldn’t find an exact number). However, they both said that culture was the most important factor for encouraging innovation, government policy and venture capital investment being runner-ups. There has to be a culture of inventing and risk-taking and being okay with failure for a place like Silicon Valley to succeed. Then you need investors to fund such wild and risky ideas.

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In the discussion of how Silicon Valley came to be, the following exchange occurred (paraphrased from memory):

Guest 1: Silicon Valley has two rules. 1) Don’t waste time, and 2) Can you do it? It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. The only thing that matters is whether or not you can (quickly) achieve the task at hand.

Guest 2: Well, you’ve just described a perfect meritocracy, and while we all want that, it isn’t completely true of Silicon Valley. Those rules apply among white guys for sure. But it’s still not a totally even playing field for women or people of color. It’s a society that ignores certain groups.

I appreciated that, and I think it was necessary in a conversation about bringing U.S. ideals to the MENA region.

Both guests agreed that Silicon Valley no longer has to be the sole example of innovation. One said that it’s easier for innovation to be global now because there has been a dissemination of information (more people are online and the world is smaller), and because the cost of software-based innovation has dropped for everyone in the past 5-10 years. There are now other areas emerging as tech cities, such as Boston and Beijing. This is also because Silicon Valley has become far too crowded and competitive for new start-ups.

Thus it is important for the MENA region to have its own Silicon-Valley-esque ground-up innovation. Simply importing English-language tech solutions (technology transfer, or “tech dumping”) won’t work. Such solutions will be designed for the wrong set of problems, and they won’t help the MENA region become self-sustainable. So how can the MENA region learn from Silicon Valley? It needs the same factors that the guests identified as reasons for Silicon Valley’s success: a culture of innovation and lots of investment.

I was happy with the way one of the speakers (Guest #2 from above) ended the discussion on Silicon Valley. He said that one of the reasons the right culture is missing here is because people lack confidence. Silicon Valley has been around for decades now and has become an intimidating group of the world’s most forward-thinking companies. People around the world get discouraged because they think they can never become like Silicon Valley and replicate its effect. “But that’s not true!,” he said, addressing the whole room. Smart people are all over the world, not just clustered in California. With time, a positive approach, and the heavy involvement of investors, people can create innovative areas anywhere.

While this hour-long chat was interesting, I was more intrigued by its attendees. This was a chat about the role of the Middle East in innovation, but the conversation was about Silicon Valley; the guests and the moderator have all spent lots of time in the U.S.; and the people listening to the talk were mostly non-Qataris. Granted, local Qataris make up about 10% of the population (the rest are temporary foreign workers and expats), but I still felt as though this event, made by Qataris, was targeted towards them. It was all about localizing foreign ideas about innovation, and yet I saw mostly foreigners there – expats planning to work in the country just for a few years.

Also, despite the casual nature of the “fireside chat,” the event had a lot more going on than I expected. There was more of a focus on networking than I expected, with free mingling time before and after the talk. For the half hour leading up to the talk, there was juice and water everywhere, as well as servers working made-to-order coffee machines. Attendees were sipping coffee and chatting over small, circular standing tables. It was like I had signed up for a fancy conference, even though I had filled out the simple (and free) online registration one day prior!

As the talk started, people moved away from the common area towards set up seats across the (very large) room. Then, after the event, we all returned to the common area to find that the servers had set up a full buffet dinner, with hot and cold dishes, and even a dessert table. I hadn’t been expecting any food, let alone a full catered dinner, at a free evening event. It really gave me a sense of the wealth of the Qatar Foundation if it can just throw that much money at such a small event.

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Leaving the fancy QSTP building via the parking lot.

Anyway, the dinner was actually really nice because it gave people a reason to stay and mingle. There were only so many tables, requiring strangers to join each other for the meal. I joined a table with two young men, Tunisians who were born in Qatar and are studying here for the year but plan to return to Tunisia. They amazed me, as they each speak 5 languages fluently: English, Arabic, French, Spanish, and Tunisian, a dialect of Arabic specific to their country that incorporates most of the above languages.

So, I stayed an hour longer than I planned, as our table was joined by a professor from Nova Scotia (working at a campus here); a woman from Poland working here; and finally a woman from Algeria, also working here in another field. While eating our mixed plates, we reflected on the event and why we had all decided to attend. We were all so similar, despite our different backgrounds – we’re all foreigners eager to understand the way this country is pushing itself forward.

Watson Quarter 1 Report

Today my first assignment for the Watson is due! Every 3 months, we have to submit a budget summary and a “long letter home” reflecting on our experience so far. If you’re interested, this is what I wrote:

Wow, a quarter into the Watson. It has certainly been an adventure, and things are going well so far. In many ways, the past few months have felt surprisingly natural. I’ve been away from home for 3 months now, which isn’t the longest I’ve ever been away, and I’ve grown to love the Watson lifestyle. Of course, it didn’t start off so smoothly; I freaked out on my third day in Sweden, unsure how I could possibly fill 365 days without frequent deadlines, co-workers, a boss, an office, or instructions. But once my project got underway, things became much easier, and I’ve been able to find my own rhythm in the lack of structure.

I’m currently in Qatar, my second project country, and I’ve been here just over a week now. I’ve already had a few project-related meetings, which is great, and I’m staying with a lovely Lebanese family that has connected me to some of their contacts here. I had a harder time starting off in Sweden, where I often stayed by myself and sent many cold emails to companies and hospitals, getting responses from maybe half of them. In Sweden, I lived in Gothenburg, Malmö, and Stockholm, and I also visited Lund (for the project) and Uppsala (to visit a new friend).

I’ve had roughly two meetings a week for the project, which has been a good pace because each meeting requires a lot of work before and after. I was able to meet with lots of different companies in Sweden, large and small, and talk to some doctors and researchers as well. I learned about health and technology and, especially at the beginning, I learned how to approach my project. When I started, I had no idea how to get the answers to my questions. My main questions are still “What factors influence the success and adoption of medical devices?” and “What are the cultural attitudes towards medical technology here?”, but I can’t simply ask people these questions. They are huge and vague, and no one knows how to answer them. Also, the more direct “Are there positive attitudes towards medtech here?” is far too leading of a question.

I learned to ask better questions once I realized that it’s my responsibility, not that of my interviewees, to infer the cultural attitudes towards health, technology, and health technology from what I hear and observe. For example, in Sweden, I started asking everyone “Why do you think Sweden is one of the healthiest countries in the world?” This big-picture question worked better, as I could note how often my interviewees brought up technology on their own. In Qatar, my question might change to “What do you think is essential to fixing the diabetes epidemic?” and seeing if medical technology comes up. Asking these specific health questions, or specific tech questions, is like going on a scavenger hunt to gather scattered puzzle pieces. I have to gather these pieces, talking to many people and observing different aspects of my location, before I can form the bigger picture and identify trends and patterns.

To sum up my findings in Sweden, the country is definitely one of the healthiest in the world by many metrics – one researcher there said that Sweden’s biggest health issue is “aging.” The main factors contributing to that health, according to the many people I interviewed, are the nearly-free public healthcare access; a long history of eating well; a highly educated population; and a commitment and societal pressure to be fit and active. There is also a huge openness to technology, which may play a part; people use their smartphones for everything including payment (you’ll never see a “cash only” sign in Sweden). People seem eager to try new medical devices as well. However, eHealth companies have to deal with extensive regulations, and it’s difficult to measure the effect of medical devices on the outcome of patients. Still, start-ups and companies are doing clinical studies to try to determine that effect, and innovation is everywhere. I also noticed a Nordic trend of ergonomic (human-centered) design that surely contributes to the success of medical devices there.

In terms of personal developments, I have had a lot of time to think about myself and my approach to the year, and I’ve already noticed some changes. I’ve definitely gotten bolder, both with strangers and by myself. I’ve become more outgoing and less self-conscious; the time pressure of the Watson helps me make more of an effort to get closer to people more quickly, and I’m really happy about that. I decided to find a swing-dancing group in Gothenburg for a non-project activity, since I used to do swing in college and it’s a great way to meet people. I found a group and went to their social dance, even though I would never go to such a thing by myself back home. Despite my nervousness, once I was there I had a great time and made some friends. I told them about my project and even made some project connections! At the same time, I’ve started to cherish my alone time, and I feel more confident than ever about doing my own thing and going places by myself. I used to hate being alone, but now I see it as a chance to get away from the ever-changing nature of the Watson. It’s a year of inconsistency where the only consistency is myself.

In all my careful thoughts, however, I never expected that I would learn the nature of grief – at least not so early into the Watson. While I was in the sunny southern town of Malmö, Sweden, I lost two of my grandparents over the course of 9 days. Before August, I had never known anyone who’s died. Can you believe that? I was born with 3 living grandparents, and I left for the Watson, 22 years later, with 3 living grandparents. Now I have one. It’s been months now, and I finally feel comfortable talking about it. I didn’t contact the Watson office about it because I knew my grandparents wouldn’t have wanted me to come home, and my grandmother passed so quickly after her husband that I wasn’t prepared to make any arrangements. I don’t think I would have been allowed to come home anyway.

I can’t be mad at the Watson for this. While I wish I could have supported my family members at the funerals I missed, it was easier to process the loss from afar. I know it’s selfish of me to appreciate that, but being on the Watson has given me the cushion of distance. However, it also forced the reality of the Watson at me. In my first few weeks of this year, I felt like I was traveling in a vacuum while everything back home stayed the same. I could be gone for ten days or ten years, and I would still return to everything being exactly the same, as though I had only left for a short vacation. But that fantasy was shattered by loss back home, and the truth is that real life goes on – or doesn’t, as it were – all over the world, all the time. I won’t come home to the place I left, and I have to be okay with that. Right now I can still pretend that it will be the same, which is probably why I’ve handled the loss well so far, but in 9 months I’ll have to face the reality of it.

There seems to be balance in the world, though, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the love and kindness I’ve received from so many strangers. The best part of my project, and the Watson as a whole so far, has been the way it introduces me to people I wouldn’t have met otherwise and brings me to places I wouldn’t have found on my own. One project interviewee (the CEO of his company!) offered to lend me a bike while I was in Gothenburg. One family struck up a conversation with me when I was alone in a café and invited me to visit them at their home in Uppsala. I barely knew them, but I decided to go for it. They kindly adopted me for the day, showing me around their town and cooking me a traditional Swedish dinner. The family I’m staying with here in Doha has been extraordinarily welcoming. I don’t know how I’ll return the favor to all these people who have opened their doors to me. I started keeping a list of all their names because I feel like I have to remember every kindness from every person. It’s like I need to create a special place in my heart to hold all these people so that, one day, I can pay it back (or forward).

It’s impossible to sum up a few months in a few pages, but I’m happy with where I’ve been so far and eager to see what awaits in this next quarter.