There are some parts of the Middle East that are almost indistinguishable from Europe. A huge Western ex-pat community, and the shops, bars, hotels, and events built to accommodate them, plus a booming tourism industry in many places, are a major reasons for this - with Dubai in particular fully embracing Western culture.
Qatar, however, is like Dubai’s little brother: playing catch-up with the economic, architectural, and cultural changes.
When my husband and I moved to Qatar 1 ½ years ago, we did it completely blind. After plans for a move to Asia fell through, and only a cursory Google of Middle Eastern countries, we applied for a few jobs and Qatar came up trumps. Neither of us had ever visited the region, and we had barely even heard of the tiny thumb-shaped peninsular that is Qatar. So we took a leap of faith, and just two weeks after getting married we had packed our bags, and were on our way to a new life in the desert.
I was terrified. An outspoken, tattooed woman, with a penchant for short skirts and sinking a drink or two; I strongly doubted I would be a good fit for this conservatively Muslim country. Of course I fully intended to respect their laws, religious and otherwise, but I worried about inadvertently offending someone or causing myself problems.
From the very beginning, there was a large amount of pretty uninhibited staring, which I initially put down to being blonde, Caucasian, and female. I quickly realised though that there is a large, mostly male, Indian ex-pat community here too, and that staring is a quite harmless part of their culture.
As it turned out, I really didn’t need to worry about having tattoos at all.
I found that curiosity, above all else, abounds here. It is completely fine to have them, and there is no need to conceal them beyond the expected standard levels of decency, but because tattooing is illegal, and there are no tattoo shops in the entire country, knowledge of tattoos is quite limited.
The most frequent reaction I get is one of surprise, followed quickly by the question: ‘is that permanent...forever?!’ I still get the usual questions about it hurting, even long after healing is complete, and I once had a lengthy discussion about ink entering the bloodstream, but I get the impression that these queries come from genuine interest, rather than judgement – and I have even been asked to model my tats for an amateur photographer!
I’m not sure if it’s the relative rarity of a woman with tattoos, the ever increasing Western influence on the country, or the prerequisite need to cover arms above the elbow and legs above the knee, but so far the consequences of being a tattooed woman in Qatar have been surprisingly minimal.
With more tattoos already planned, I can live with the questions, and I don’t even mind the staring…most of the time.