National day in Qatar is celebrated on December 18th when Jassim Bin Mohammed Al-Thani succeeded his father as ruler of Qatar. He helped to unify the various tribes and force away outside influences and although Qatar did not gain it’s independence until 1971, he was seen as strongly influential in the unified Qatar. (read more about the history here)
Even though National day is held every year, this year’s National Day festivities were highly anticipated for two main reasons; last year’s celebrations were cancelled due to the conflict in Aleppo and more importantly the current blockade against Qatar by several Middle Eastern countries. Other than these reasons, I was excited because it would be my first year seeing an actual celebration in this country on such a wide scale. It was almost like, this country needed a celebration, some joy amongst the sadness that has engulfed this nation after 6 months of political unrest, which still seem to have no end in sight. (the latest on the blockade)
Many social media outlets advertised this year’s festivities which included a week long drone show at Katara, a 10 day celebration at Darb Al Saai (we took our students there last year on a school trip), shows at the Mall of Qatar, a parade and fireworks on the Corniche and much, much more.
My school held a National Day celebration on the last day before our three week winter break. Students put on performances and booths were set up all over the school grounds with games and food. Teachers were dressed in National clothing and parents came out to spend the day with their children.
Jennifer, JD, Darryl and I checked out the festivities at the very crowded Darb Al Saai one night.
But the real celebration was at the Corniche. The parade was set to start at 3pm and we had a strong feeling that it was going to be super crowded so we decided to get down there around 12. As we walked along the Corniche to get closer to where everything would be, the crowds began to form and we were able to experience something a little out of the ordinary. There were hoards of men and they could only walk up to a certain point before being stopped by guards and police, because our husbands were with us, they were allowed to proceed. Qatar is definitely made up of a dominant men population, mainly due to the amount of laborers and because it is a family-oriented country, priority does go to men and women couples, women pairs and women with children. So as we were allowed to proceed, not without going through the metal detectors and being patted down; it felt strange watching the sea of men disappear behind us. I felt sorry for them but I understood the logic. Groups of single men in an open area with few women, in a country where you can get into trouble for staring too long at a women could be asking for trouble. It is also a way of crowd control.
There weren’t many seats set up across the street from the Corniche and we were not optimistic that we’d get one so we opted to stay on the water side. Unfortunately, to really see the parade you’d have to be on the side of the street where the seats were, so we were not in the best place to really enjoy the parade but what we did enjoy was so much more. As I looked around, I saw a myriad of diversity, Indians with Asians, blacks with whites, Arabs with Christians, young and old people, smiling, laughing, enjoying the day. No fights, no arguments, just happiness. As Darryl and I sat on a curb and lost our view of the street, due to many people with children taking their seats on the grass in front of the gates, an Arab family took food out of their bags and began to eat. Then they offered us some and although I said “La, Shukran” (no thank you) 3 times, they refused to take no for an answer. I’d heard that it was rude to reject an offering of food so I reached out my hand and accepted the plate. I did the polite thing of taking a bite of some Arabian treat for which I had no idea what it was and then the older woman of the family said she was going to give me more, and a younger women took back our plate and loaded it with more food. The food wasn’t half bad either. We had water which was being given out for free from an Al Meera truck and food from a kind stranger.
Then this happened, men, complete strangers, gathered shoulder to shoulder and began praying together. Since I moved to this country, it is one of the things I admire the most about Islam, the way they pray. For those few moments, they are not strangers, expats, nationals, rich or poor, but brothers and equal.
The parade was a show of arms. The few glimpses I was able to see on tip toes between shoulders and over heads were of military trucks and men in uniforms marching. But we had a great view of the air show and it was awesome.
We didn’t stay for the people’s parade but Jennifer booked a hotel on the corniche where we went back to watch the fireworks at night.
Darryl and I left the hotel and headed home after the fireworks but a usual 10 minute ride took 1.5 hours to get home and we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the real celebration. Cars, trucks and people everywhere celebrating in the streets. The real parade, in a sense, had just begun. A display of real pride prevailed
Even though we didn’t get to see the drone show in Katara or shake the hand of the Sheik, or truly get to see the parade, I immensely enjoyed being amongst the people for National Day. In American, I would be so afraid to venture out in large crowds for fear of violence or bombings. Here, even though I was nervous, only because of the blockade, I still felt safe. It was nice to see a country of people united standing side by side in solidarity and believe me it felt like the entire country was present. I feel like Qatar needed this day. Despite what’s happening politically, Qatar is showing courage. Be strong dear country, be strong!
Here are some tips on how to be prepared for the parade:
- Arrive early, like 5 hours early
- Get a seat in the stands so that you are facing the parade (if you are on the water side, only the vehicles come down that side, but it is a good side for the air show) or sit close to the gates
- Go as a family
- Take some snacks and liquids
- Locate the bathroom
- Dress for the weather (hoodie-if it’s chilly, that you can take off if you get hot) (sunscreen)
- You can drive and park at the MIA and take a bus over to the festivities or drive to a nearby hotel and walk the rest of the way
- Book a hotel near the Corniche for the day, so you can enjoy the fireworks and avoid the crowds
- Go, be pushed and shoved, smile and meet people
- Get into the spirit and dress like a Qatari or wear something that shows off local pride (hat, t-shirt, scarf)