In the lead up to Christmas I started to question our decision to stay. I love Doha, it has become my home and we have slowly made our own little extended family here, a community. But there was something going on. I can't tell you exactly what happened, I don't really know myself, but there was a string of events and a feeling that maybe Christmas just wasn't welcome this year. A hotel was asked to remove its tree. Decorations were taken down from a shopping centre and a visit by a Dutch Saint Nick, to a well known Doha landmark was criticized and written about.
I wondered if we should have just gone away. Gone somewhere where Christmas was more acceptable.
I've thought a lot this year about how we co-exist. Earlier in the year I took part in a writing course with three young Palestinians. I was immediately struck by the two girls. With rhyming names and matching grins their introductions involved giggles and shy smiles, but the moment we began to share our writing I realized my first impressions of shyness were askew, I'd got it wrong. They were women not girls. They were strong, they weren't shy, just polite. They were there to write and more than happy to share. Every word had a bite, a sting, sentences pieced together in to stories of displacement, racism and loss. In a 'personal essays' writing course there's no holding back, it comes out raw, often unpalatable but always uniquely honest. Work has to be done quickly, there's not time to gloss over the ugly bits.
On day two we interviewed each other in an exercise geared towards character writing. She was 20 and asked "what kind of music do you like?" I was immediately stumped. I download new music every week but I hadn't been asked that question in about 20 years. I thought back to parties in share houses, sitting in front of stereos with boys. I giggled and explained that I hadn't thought about "what type" in a long time. She looked me in the eye and said "you know, when we first arrived here I thought you were just a group of bored housewives, I was wrong". I thought about my fellow participants, a recognized and award winning designer from New York, a well traveled American writer, a Dean at the University who also owns her own yoga studio, really interesting women, but yes, women who were married and 40 something.
I loved her honesty. I still do. Everything she wrote stayed with me. I went home at night and thought about the words she'd shared that day. "This is not about religion, don't believe for a moment it's about religion". If she was that powerful at 20, who would she be at 30? We took photos, became Facebook friends and said our goodbyes.
I try and read everything that she writes. Last month I watched video footage of her and her sister standing nose to nose with Israeli soldiers.
"We can co-exist" her sister says to two Israeli soldiers.
We can co-exist.
On Christmas Day as we checked in to our hotel for lunch I stood looking at the enormous tree in the foyer. Families entered the room, I saw familiar faces from school, the supermarket, our compound - some of them had their parents who had flown in from around the world. Everyone was smiling, wishing each other a Merry Christmas. A man in a Thobe walked past me and said "Merry Christmas" and my voice wavered a little when I said "thank you" because I really meant it.
We can co-exist.