"See you soon!" I said, and flew to Qatar. One day to get there, one day back. A three day conference. Almost more in-air time that in-Qatar time. (Almost.) But let me explain...
How does this sound: Submit your paper to an Undergrad conference, if accepted, fly to Qatar, splendor in Georgetown's hospitality, meet fascinating people that are also weirdly into Middle East Studies, and, oh right, present that paper. Pretty good, huh? Minus the jet lag and the shockingly tiny difference between travel-time and Qatar-time, this was possibly one of the coolest things I have so far been blunt enough to go for. Retrospectively, I feel lucky, surprised, confused, and wonder if it wasn't all a dream.
My paper was, this will not be too surprising, on Tunisia. On the new constitution there, to be precise. In December 2010 a man, Mohammed Bouazizi couldn't take the repression and injustice of his country any more. To make an example of himself, he burned his living body. If only he'd survived, he could have woken up to a world that would be entirely transformed within just weeks. By January, the dictator of Bouazizi's Tunisia was essentially overthrown. Tunisia's success was more or less successfully exported and copied to impact hearts and lives across the Middle East.
In Tunisia, however, the calm after the storm hit badly. What to do if the thing that made you suffer all your life suddenly is gone? (Other than to realize, that maybe it's not just a single thing that made your life so difficult.) In Tunisia, the right and taken choice was to have elections. But how to have elections in a country that does not yet understand the concept? So time went on and days because weeks and finally months, and there was some kind of standstill. This is not to undermine the great work that was being done! And alas, eventually, elections were planned, organized and held. Just the results did not find too much liking somewhat inside but almost everywhere outside the country: the "Islamists" did well.
So the new government convened and talked and discussed and at some point it told everyone that it would have a new constitution by March 2013 - more than two years after Bouazizi's sacrifice.
This is the place where my paper came in: I said that constitutions can be amazing things, but that it can be hard to do them properly. All across the world countries have constitutions, and citizens have hardly ever read or understood these constitutions. Then there are those countries were the governments themselves have chosen not to "understand" the constitutions, but violate its very rules. I said that it is hard to create a constitutional culture, just as it is hard to create any culture. Thus, if a country really wants a constitution, it needs to talk to almost everyone, to familiarize people properly, so as to make sure the document is truly rooted and connected to those who are meant to follow it eventually. Too bad, I then said, that Tunisia only has one year to do that. And then I said that I am worried. The text could remain a text and not have any impact. But still, I said, this time now is actually exciting!
Now I understand that another problem that the government is faced with is that it doesn't merely write a constitutions; it also governs. To govern well, it must do what the people wanted it to do. The people wanted jobs and an end to an unbearable and too long-standing unemployment. Now, unfortunately you really cannot create jobs by writing a new constitution. Sure, you can create conditions that would favor job-development in future times. Other than that, however …
At the Qatar conference I was applauded for thinking about something that no-one normally thinks about too much. Funny, right? Constitutions that are meant to be the core of countries aren't thought about. Can someone then remind me why we chose to have them? On the other hand, the not-thinking could also mean truly deep deeprootedness. And eventually -- well; good constitutions are those that function, and that does not always have to mean also being talked about.
To end this long preface here (that is probably not even a preface anymore): Qatar was many things. It was overwhelming, beautiful and if was full of contrasts: vast, dry, sandy desert with sky-high rocketing towers and cool AC-temperatures; fully covered women and men in white robes often right next to the chiquest and sexiest. A deadly rich country that, in fear of the end of riches, is trying to build up a system that could create wealth in ways that it has happened in countries without oil. Schools in which resources triumph over students; museums that are very much worth seeing, while their contents are not exactly interesting. An emir who wants to stay the monarch of the country but somehow seem or be democratic all the while.
Everything in Doha to me seems filled with contrasts. You can live the richest of rich lives, or you can happen to be a migrant worker without anything, not even rights. You can enjoy endless opportunities and be free to choose your profession, taste and everything, yet the country you'd live in actually isn't free. It seems so easy nonetheless to forget about that… The Qatar Foundation, that is responsible for bringing schools and culture and much more, advertises with a slogan that is something like "we are the old renewed." Traditional souks, Arabic markets, exist, but were built 5 years ago. Traditional art is recreated, reinvented; architecturally everything is stunning, but it all feels too unnecessary and tus artificial. Tall buildings, for example, were invented in a place like New York City, where there was now place other than into the sky. Now, these creatures symbolize power and wealth or something, and in Qatar they rise up despite vast space all around. Frankly, that looks finny, strange.
So all these thoughts, what do they leave me with (other than confused)? I look forward to Tunisia. I expect things there to make a little bit more sense. I also hope to understand things better, both about the constitution and about the Middle East, and about democracy. Qatar really was a kind of preface. Now let's see what the summer may bring.