Cultures & Traditions

Love The Skin You’re In


We’re on holiday in Bali and today a lady selling bracelets on the beach compared the colour of her skin to mine. She was suggesting that mine was nicer because it was “beautiful and light” and hers was “too dark”. The irony that I was actually sunbathing to make my skin darker was clearly lost. Needless to say I didn’t agree with her and moved onto which neon thread would look better with which Buddha head.

But it did get me thinking… the first time I saw ‘lightening’ creams in abundance was on arrival in the Middle East about a year ago. It appears all the major brands sell skin lightening products; Dove, Nivea, Oil of Olay… who knew? I remember being taken aback by the scale of this product category.

About one third of the shelf space in the face and body cream section had been allocated to lightening creams. My reaction, went something a little like this:

1. Fascination: Huh. I did not know they sold that. Or them. Or them. Whoah, that’s a lot.

2. Confusion (read ignorance): So who here is lightening their skin? In bulk? This is not just to correct a weird pigmentation blob – this is full body lightening. So who are they targeting?

3. Frustration: So why are those people not happy with the colour of their skin? Aren’t we meant to love the skin we’re in?

4. Sadness: What a shame this product category even exists.

But hold on there black kettle, aren’t I here making my skin darker, on holiday, on purpose? I have been the owner of a can of St Tropez or two in the past – is that not the same thing? Albeit darker? Or is it different if our reasons are different? Anyway, it got me thinking.

And then someone offered me a Bintang.

Niqabs, Thobes And Henna Fingers

All in-flight safety videos are not the same! The local versions really make me giggle – I’ve particularly enjoyed the different cultural references as the video production teams have had fun with different cultural characteristics of their passengers; hair styles, make up, clothing, body shape, even henna. Goodness only knows what they’d come up with if they created one in the UK to reflect British passengers.

My favourite has been Fly Dubai’s – here are some highlights from both theirs and Gulf Airways.

IMG_4333 IMG_4338 IMG_4334 IMG_4329 IMG_4331 IMG_4339 IMG_4327 image (2) image (4) image (3)

 Here’s the Fly Dubai video – excuse the background noise (not our child I hasten to add).

Things You Just Don’t See In Qatar



Apart from the obvious, such as the colour green, lush rolling meadows, craggy mountains, lakes, woods and forests, here’s a collection of things we just don’t see here. The list is ongoing, so feel free to add to it.


1. Roadkill. Unless you count street kittens and that one flattened lizard out in the middle of the desert. Poor thing – what were the odds?!

2. Beggars (illegal).

3. Homeless people (illegal).

4. Recycle bins. Not one thing from our household waste is recycled. Not. One. Thing.

5. Drunken behaviour on the street (illegal). Ahem.*

6. Westerners walking on the pavements. It’s too hot and everything’s too far.

7. A peloton of cyclists, not even a small one. We’ll see maybe one, lone, crazy guy, once a week, with no helmet.

8. Motorbikes. Well… maybe one a month, and he (I’m yet to see a she) is usually just doing tricks in the traffic – standing on the seat or maybe just doing long distance wheelies.

9. Trains (in plan).

10. Phone booths and pay-phones.

11. Pregnant single mothers (illegal). Someone I know just had a very very quick marriage at the ‘religious city compound’ – and you know what? Babies tend to be born quite early in her family! Ahem.

12. Tattoo parlours (illegal).

13. People leafleting (illegal).

14. Fog lights. They use their hazzards instead.

15. Letterboxes. There’s no house-to-house postal service.

16. Same sex couples (illegal).

17. Unmarried co-habiting couples (illegal).

18. Overt public displays of affection (illegal). You don’t even see people holding hands that often. All sexual content is edited out of TV and films here.  I even noticed a Chandler and Monica kiss had been edited to look more like a peck.  

19. Boobs and bare naked flesh in general.  You become conditioned very quickly, so much so, that some of the MTV videos now look truly pornographic.

20. Percy Pigs in M&S.


* This obviously excludes the golf club, the rugby club, and a few of the licensed hotels as the assumption is that you’ll be driven there and back and no one sees you. You just hope your driver doesn’t crash on the way as not only have you been drinking, you’re probably wearing something ‘inappropriate’ too!


Crossing borders with a burka. How does that work then?



While travelling from Oman to Qatar, we stand at the immigration desk watching the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) residents at the Omani passport control. Three *fully* veiled women approach, accompanied by a more western dressed (i.e. not thobed) male. Since moving to the Middle East, I have a greater appreciation of the privacy these women both seek and receive and I look on, curious if (or rather how) they will unveil to show their faces to Omani passport control – they are crossing country borders after all. Huh. They don’t. Their passports are checked and they walk straight through. And then straight through the security metal detectors with their faces totally covered.

Huh. That gets us talking. How can that be? We’re talking burkas, so *fully veiled* from head to toe, no eye holes, nothing – they have black scarves entirely covering their heads and faces, I’m surprised they can even see where they are going. (I’ve been told the view is similar to wearing dark sunglasses and you can indeed see just fine!)

On closer inspection, I do notice that they have two layers to the head veil and one (just one) of the women appears to lift the outer one up and over her head, while the inner veil remains – however it is still black and still blocking full view of her face.

Having been brought up in a country at the, let’s say, more paranoid end of the security scale, we’re frantically asking each other questions:- How can they match those women to their photos? How do they know who is under there? How is that not a security risk? How can that be allowed?

Then, acknowledging the local need for modesty, we try to work out how immigration could respect that, yet still maintain secure immigration procedures. We happen to be answering for this particular airport, but our conversation soon turns to our airports back home. The answers come fast; separate rooms, female staff of the same religion, privacy glass etc. So why doesn’t the Omani border have that? What would London do? New York? Washington DC? We’d never considered it before. All are international airports, catering to multi-religion residents and visitors after all. What experience would these woman have at Heathrow, or JFK? We guess that they would have to unveil?

So….  if they are ok to unveil in other international airports, then why not here? What exactly are the privacy rules for women in the GCC and how come it is ok for these rules to be relaxed during international travel?

While we fill the next hour with some dull airport shopping looking for camel themed trinkets and giggling at camel milk chocolate (yes, we’re still amused), we google what other countries have decided to do. The UK is undecided but there are vague recommendations going through parliament at the moment. It seems to try to address the issue while in court, in police custody and at border control, and recommends that individual employers or educational establishments should make their own rules according to their needs. Fence sitting? We notice that Australia, Italy and France have made some actual decisions about when it is against the law to be veiled. This article shows veil bans by country, as at Sept 2013.

The bigger question for me, is…. why wear a face veil at all?  The Quran has no requirement that women cover their faces with a veil, or cover their bodies with the full-body burka. According to Wikipedia (must be true) many Muslims believe that the collected traditions of the life of Muhammed, require both men and women to ‘dress and behave modestly in public.’ That’s quite different to ‘must wear a face veil’. Hmmm. Furrowed brow. Chinese whispers over multiple decades? Or perhaps ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’? I found this article on the subject: “Does the Quran require women to wear the veil?”  The short answer is no. The long answer is no.

Anyhow, on entry into Doha, I notice that Qatar immigration does indeed have a booth with privacy glass around it – so, that’s how they have solved the problem. Qatar has a strict immigration process which includes photos on entry and exit, so it doesn’t surprise me that they have found a solution. I’ll watch next time I’m in other international airports, particularly more western ones, to see how (I mean if) they have a solution for this issue.


Photo: Omani dolls we found in the Muscat Souq