the roaad to qatar by Allen Rucker IBM ad community grid

When Chet Cooper, from this fine magazine, called me up one Saturday and asked me if I wanted to go to a international disability conference in Doha, Qatar, I immediately said, “Sure, of course, wouldn’t miss it for the world,” not knowing where Doha, Qatar was located, how to pronounce the word, “Qatar,” or even why I should be invited to such an august gathering a half a world away. I’m not a leading world disability advocate or activist; I don’t run a prestigious organization like “Autism Speaks” or the British charity, SCOPE. I’m just, you know, disabled, a wheelchair user for ten years who writes TV shows and pop-culture books and recently wrote a book about life after paralysis. Even after a decade, I still feel like a babe in the disability woods. I’m still making embarrassing verbal gaffes like saying “disabled person” instead of “person with a disability” or “wheelchair person” instead of “wheelchair user.” I’ve even been known to use the word “handicapped” on occasion, raising the hackles of every right-minded disability cognoscente in earshot. I’m new here, I tell them; I’m still getting use to just being disabled and not yet engaged in the Augean task of politicking and organizing for disability rights.

But the theme of the Qatar conference this year—formally called “The Second Annual International Forum on Children with Special Needs”—was, to quote the brochure, “to highlight media as a positive change agent in the transformation of disability.” Because I hope my book is a “positive change agent” in the way people view the disabled, I saw that I might have a place at the table, so to speak. And I was, and am, dying to travel, to seeing the world from 54 inches off the ground. Plus, Chet had another great media idea. Since I had spend a good part of my career making and writing documentaries, why not make one about this event, not to mention the exotic Middle Eastern country we were about to experience first-hand? And so our little party of four—Chet, cinematographer and old friend, Paul Goldsmith, field producer Columbine Goldsmith, and myself—embarked on The Road to Qatar.

Before I describe what we encountered, let me say this—this conference and this trip combined were genuinely mind-broadening, to bend an old cliché. Qatar is a fascinating place, a country in the process of inventing itself at lightening speed and a cultural juncture between East and West. The conference, a truly world-class gathering that included every one from Cherie Booth, QC, the wife of the prime minister of Great Britain, to people of modest means on the front lines of disability education from Ghana to Brunei, was in itself a visit to a strange new land, at least for me. I’ll be processing the images and information I gathered from the whole venture for years to come.

The international forum was sponsored by the Shafallah Center for Children with Special Needs, an advanced educational facility created under the patronage of Her Highness Sheika Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, the First Lady of Qatar. I have nothing to compare it to, personally, but guest speaker Anthony Kennedy Shriver, related to all the other famous Kennedys and Shrivers and chairman of Best Buddies International, an outreach program for kids with intellectual disabilities, said Shafallah was without a doubt the finest facility of its kind in the world, “an enormously important symbol [for] what it represents for the whole Middle East and what it represents for the world.” My guess is that he should know. He’s probably toured every such facility out there.

What makes Shafallah so special? A member of the Shafallah staff, the Assistant Director of Training and Development, Sarah Hannibal (more about her later), briefly ran it down for me. One reason, she noted, was “the immense amount of support and backing we receive from the Emir and her highness Sheika Mozah.” It’s a social priority in Qatar to help kids with special needs. I don’t know this for a fact, but my guess is that few other regimes in the region have this at the top of their “to do” list. The Qatari government is small enough, and rich enough, to focus on a priority like this and pay for it. The layers of bureaucratic entanglement are thin.

Secondly, the teachers are well-trained, according to Sarah, many getting in excess of 30 hours of professional development training every year. The in-house staff represents over twenty-five different countries and the center is constantly bringing experts in and sending staff out to other countries to learn more. The forum itself is just one such occasion for the center to build cooperative programs with groups like “Autism Speaks” and “Best Buddies.” It seems to be setting itself up as the nexus of a world educational network, not unlike a medical research facility like the Cleveland Clinic or Memorial Sloan-Ketterling Cancer Center.

Then there is the place itself. The Shafallah Center is a visually stunning site, an expanse of low-rising white-white buildings in a compound on the edge of Doha. Like everything in Qatar, it feels like it was built yesterday. Its pristine chalk white walls are covered with art work by the children whom it serves and the endless archways and marble-floored entry rooms make you feel like you’re weekending in a royal desert retreat. Even the lecture hall is exotic, a seamless round white dome where images could be projected on every surface. This is not the pre-fab, fake-wood-siding “special ed” bungalow situated behind P.S. 14. This is a palace of learning.

But then again, it fits right in with the emerging metropolis of Doha, not like any city you’ve ever seen. Qatar is a thumb-shaped emirate situated along the coastline of the Persian Gulf and Doha is like an urban mirage rising at the edge of the desert. Think of the meteoric rise of Las Vegas in the era of Bugsy Seigel, from desert dust to the Stardust in a roll of the dice. But this isn’t a garish gambling Mecca (no Islamic pun intended); this is a new world city. Hundreds of skyscrapers are under construction, with a goodly percentage of the world’s building cranes on lease. To our eyes, it seemed like they were building two identical 50-story edifices at every site, like the contractor had talked them into a two-for-one sale. At one point Paul shot the city at dust from across a small in-land waterway. As a thousand lights from a forest of half-built towers blinked on at once, it didn’t seem real. It looked like some cinematic computer animation that Hollywood created for a city on the moon.

Currently, Qatar has no unemployment, no observable crime, no smog, no graffiti, no gangsta rappers, no public drunkenness, and no car that we could find—and we looked hard—built before 1985. And electricity is free. More than one person told us that Qatar had the highest per capita income in the world; it just passed Luxembourg or something. Seventy-five percent of its roughly 800,000 inhabitants are guest workers from places like India, Malaysia, and the Philippines—the band playing in the bar at the Sheraton Doha, one of the only places to drink in this alcohol-free country, was all Pilipino—called “Life After Dark”—and they did a mean rendition of the 70’s pop classic, “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight.” The other 200,000 denizens are native Qatarians and they are the only people allowed to be citizens to date. They run things. And they are no slouches at it.

Okay, the place is not perfect. The traffic did seem to be headed toward grid-lock status, there were very few accessible hotel rooms in the whole city, and you probably can’t walk around saying slanderous things about the powers that be and last long. But women can drive, vote, and seemed to be in positions of authority, at least around Shafallah. That certainly didn’t fit the common stereotype of a Middle Eastern society.

Dr. Ronald Brown, an American education specialist attending the forum who lives in nearby Abu Dhabi and is a longtime Arab-watcher, explained the particular appeal of the Qatari experiment. He said that among all of the Arabs he had worked with, the Qatari leadership was the most “adventurous” in their vision of a future society. Besides a forward-looking institution like the Shafallah Center, they had also created an “education city” within Doha to house satellite campuses for American universities like Texas A & M, Georgetown, and Cornell’s Weill Medical Center. They are actively pursuing cross-cultural pollination through sponsoring international events like the 15th annual Asian Games. And Qatar is also home to what could arguably be called the Voice of the Middle East, the Arab TV network, Al Jazeera. Even some high-ranking Qatari officials mumbled about what they perceived as Al Jazeera’s blend of journalism and opinion—not that any American network would ever be guilty of such sins—but no one doubts Al Jazeera’s increasing power and influence in shaping the New Middle East.

The term Dr. Brown kept using to describe the whole gulf Arab culture was “gracious.” Arabs, he said, have a long tradition of hospitality, generosity, respect for others, and personal warmth. There was not one Arab, at the conference or on the street, that didn’t come across this way. Maybe we were gullible victims of a giant con job, but I don’t think so.

Just the word “Arab” is scary to most Americans. See a guy in a traditional head cloth (called a kufiyya) and black coils (called the agal) walking around the local mall and the general thought bubble (or at least my general thought bubble) is “terrorist,” “terrorist sympathizer,” or at the very least, “freedom hater.” “Gracious,” “kind,” “thoughtful,” “generous,” and you know, “just another human being,” is not the momentary assumption. Well, for the sake of the emerging world order, think again.

The first Arab we hung out with was Rami, our driver and guide on a desert safari on our first day in town. He was born in Lebanon but had moved to Qatar at age one. He was a wild man; his nickname was “The Desert Fox.” Along with a caravan of ten other SUV’s, he drove us down the highway until it just stopped in the middle of nowhere. While the drivers deflated their tires for desert traction, the rubes rode around on the back of a camel and felt like Omar Sharif for about a minute and a half. Then, as Rami played the Backstreet Boys on cassette in his souped-up four-wheel-drive Nissan, he assaulted the endless sand dunes south of Doha like a skateboarder in an empty swimming pool. On the way out to the sands, he pointed out the single pipeline that brought natural gas from the outback of Qatar to the coastal refineries and made this specter of a world-class country possible.

The Shafallah Forum opened with a speech by UN Ambassador Luis Gallegos of Ecuador outlining an important global bench mark in the recognition of people with disabilities—the recently approved UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Though I got lost in all the bureaucratic verbiage about “protocol,” “process,” and “implementation,” it was clear this was a new day for the global disability community—a paper declaration that set a world standard for the fair treatment of the disabled. The Sheika herself was present for this proclamation, the Qatar equivalent of the President throwing out the first baseball of the season. She was stunningly beautiful, completely accessible to anyone who wanted to say hello, and clearly there for more than a photo opportunity. For whatever reason—and we could never quite find that out—she had a passion for working with children with special needs.

Among all the heady talk about a worldwide campaign to improve the lives of the disabled, a number of participants with disabilities joined the gathering and brought the whole thing down to street level. After the first evening’s dinner banquet—the food at this event deserves its own gourmet chronicle—a young lady stood up and said we were about to watch a movie about a 39-pound man. No one would admit it under oath, but half the audience was no doubt itching to slip away and go check out the Pilipino version of The Shirelles in the “Drinking Hole” on the second floor. (The preferred pre-dinner cocktail in Qatar was fresh kiwi or strawberry juice.) But no one bolted for the bar. We all sat politely and watch the documentary, called 39 Pounds of Love. And we were collectively blown away.
... continued in ABILITY Magazine

Travel arrangements provided by Qatar Airlines
Qatar Airlines

Read Allen Rucker's own story in our Teri Garr issue

ABILITY Magazine
Articles in the Frankenstein issue; Emme Aronson—Couples Fighting Depression; Car Wars—May the Force be Green and a Q&A with Toyota; Humor Therapy; Pet Peeves; All the World's a Stage, But How Do I Get a Ticket to the Show—Disability Legal Rights Center; Iraq Vets—Healing on the Slopes; Virginia Tech—Lessions to be Learned; Chop Chop—Try a Raw Food Diet; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...subscribe

Excerpts from the Frankenstein issue: (Volume 2007 Issue 3)

Earl Bakken Interview

Road to Qatar — Allen Ruckers Reports

Stroke — Dr. Winstein's Recovery Research

Augie Nieto's — Quest to Coquer ALS

Chop Chop — Try a Raw Food Diet

Humor Therapy — Pet Peeves

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photo by crush photo studios IBM