To Doha and Back with Love, Local Journalists Reflect on Their Fear, Loathing and Everything Surreal Adventure in the Gulf
When I learned months after the fact that some Omaha journalist colleagues of mine had picked up and left this provincial Midwestern burg to pursue a magazine opportunity in Doha, Qatar of all places, well, it peaked my interest to say the least. It would be a year or more before I caught up with Bryce Bridges and Tessa Jeffers to find out what, besides sheer curiosity and wanderlust, propelled them to make such a dramatic move. Here is their story, along with that of another Omahan who joined them, Kathleen Flood, complete with the good, the bad, and the surreal of their desert sojourn. A fourth Omahan, Danae Mercer, also joined the crew for a time.
To Doha and Back with Love - Local Journalists Reflect on Their Fear, Loathing and Everything Surreal Adventure in the Gulf
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Imagine your field of vision as a print journalist being confined to Nebraska your whole career. Then, suddenly, an offer to practice your craft in Doha, Qatar arises.
Qatar? After a Google search locating it you discover Qatar is an oil-rich nation striving to be cosmopolitan like its United Arab Emirate neighbors. Qatar though is a far less refined and developed cousin of, say, fabulous Dubai.
In a Muslim Arab world poised somewhere between feudal paternalism and capitalism run amok, the press must first submit stories to the state before publication or broadcast. Reportedly much of the domestic media has ties to the royal family.
A visiting journalist working for a Qatari employer with monarchy influence is a very different thing than working for an independent Western media outlet. The sponsor-employer who brings you to Qatar expects you to be beholden to him and his interests, not the public’s. You are more subject or serf, than autonomous journalist.
Given all this, you either balk at taking the plunge or else you embrace this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. In late 2008 photographer Bryce Bridges and editor Tessa Jeffers of Omaha found themselves in that very quandary.
Their Qatar connection was Rami Shinnawie and Kataryna Dmoch Shinnawie, an Omaha couple who were fans of the short-lived but much buzzed about Medium magazine Bridges co-founded with Eric Stoakes in 2000. Medium plugged into the creative class culture here in an unprecedented way
Shinnawie, a Lebanese-American dentist, and Dmoch, a Warsaw, Poland-native designer, owned and operated an Old Market dental spa and gallery. The pair met at Creighton University. In 2008 they decided to move their various ventures to Doha, where they’re friends and partners with Qatari luxury real estate magnate Ahmed Hassan Bilal, the power-wielding sheik in this story.
Bilal’s many holdings include Qatar Happening, a monthly events guide.
With the unlikely partners wanting to launch a new magazine capturing the pulse of the booming Doha social scene, Shinnawie and Dmoch approached Bridges, who liked the sound of it.
“I thought, This is exactly what I need, I need to be inspired by different points of view and different cultures,” recalls Bridges.
He in turn sounded out Stoakes, whose career has included stints with Omaha Magazine and more recently as promotions-creative services director at The Reader. When Stoakes backed out, Bridges asked another colleague, Jeffers, then Reader arts editor, to come on board. Jeffers welcomed the adventure but wasn’t about to take a job in a misogynist land sight unseen. At her request the owners flew her to Qatar, where she found the set-up safe and enticing as long as she covered herself appropriately and kept her place.
“I was wined and dined,” says Jeffers. “That place is crazy. There’s people from all over the world. I met people from everywhere and they had such interesting stories. There’s a lot of beautiful things about that culture.”
So she and Bridges threw caution to the wind to make the leap, going all in on an experience that challenged them on many levels. Jeffers arrived first in 2009. Bridges shortly after that. A few months later Kathleen Flood and Danae Mercer of Omaha joined them as interns.
“It was wild and I don’t know if it would have been as amazing if it didn’t happen the way it did,” says Jeffers. “Some crazy things happened.”
For starters, there were red carpet interviews and photo shoots with Josh Hartnett, who partied with Jeffers and Flood at a club, an exclusive with Ben Kingsley, profiles of internationally renowned artists, entree to elite Qatari society. There were also harsh restrictions and troubling incongruities.
Tessa doing a red carpet interview with Josh Hartnett
Then there was the growing rift between the owners. The disputes started as a distraction and annoyance but eventually impacted the publication. Jeffers says everything had to be run through Bilal and Dmoch and each seemed to have a competing agenda. “He would say something and she would say another, never agreeing, with us as the ping pong ball, constantly back and forth,” recalls Jeffers.
Toward the end, she says, Bilal and the Shinnawies “were constantly fighting about money.” The spillover resulted in fewer magazines being printed, from a normal run of 5,000 to a fraction of that. She says the in-fighting made for “many headaches.”
It turned out to be a mix of the routine, the exceptional, the surreal and the absurd, all framed by unrelenting desert heat and sand, stunning Gulf-front properties, conspicuous consumption and stark disparities. In the end, disputes between the owners and the editors, marked by Bilal’s heavy-handed interference, caused Bridges and Jeffers to cut and run, he in late 2009 and she in mid-2010.
Bridges oversaw nine issues. Jeffers, 15.
With the advantage of time, red flags aplenty appeared from the start signaling this would be a compromised endeavor. The way things were described, if not promised contractually, was “so far from what it really was,” says Jeffers wistfully.
Doha skyline in the distance
Despite the owners’ stated desire to put out a quality 84 to 100-page magazine, the editors found their hands tied by a lack of resources and by a fundamental misunderstanding of paid advertising versus free editorial content. She says the owners often confused the two, making it difficult to plan issues.
Jeffers says she and Bridges were prevented from accepting invitations to cover major cultural events outside Doha. “The daily fight though,” she says, “was about how these journalistic assignments and stories were generating money. For every page in the magazine they wanted it bought and paid for. They did not understand how a publication with integrity could operate based on writing interesting stories and interviewing dynamic people.”
Cultural divides got in the way, too. Bridges recalls what should have been the magazine’s greatest coup and his shining moment — scoring a Ben Kingsley spread — being ruined when Dmoch demanded to know “Who is this ugly old bald man on the cover of my magazine?’ “It was utterly ridiculous,” he says. Incredulity aside, Bridges was upset ownership didn’t seem to appreciate “it took me awhile to cultivate the kinds of connections that would allow me to get Ben Kingsley on the cover.”
Ben Kingsley, ©photo by Bryce Bridges
Then there was an ad for a major Middle East fashion store featuring Scarlett Johannson that Bilal nixed. “He told me her skirt was too short and that she was looking very naughty and too sexy for this region,” says Jeffers. Even when Jeffers pointed out it was a top dollar ad competing magazines would die to get he refused it.
Promise and reality diverged, too, when it came to living-office accommodations, staffing and other things. Then there was the fact Jeffers ended up going over there in the capacity of Bilal’s personal assistant before assuming editor duties.
Originally, say Bridges and Jeffers, they were to create a brand new magazine from scratch. Instead, he as editor in chief (creative director) and she as managing editor took over an existing one, ABODE, the owners purchased.
The American editors say they couldn’t be sure of anything, but they believe ABODE has been published since 2000, going through many incarnations before they arrived. It’s mainly distributed to hotels and partner companies and at events. It sold for 12 Riyals or about $3.30 per issue.
Bridges and Jeffers kept the name but reinvented the slick publication from a celebrity-centric women’s mag filled with reprinted and, he says, pilfered photos-stories to a sophisticated city lifestyle pub driven by original local content.
“My very first edict was, ‘We will not steal any content anymore,’” Bridges says.
An ongoing battle ensued, he says, between his desire for compelling original content and the PR fodder the owners preferred. “I just wasn’t down for that,” he says. “I wasn’t willing to compromise like that.”
A pair of Qatar filmmakers, ©photo by Bryce Bridges
Culture shock greeted the visitors at nearly every turn. Take the lavish lifestyles the ruling class live. “There’s a lot of money there,” says Jeffers. The opulence contrasts with the humble living conditions of average Qataris and non-Western guest workers. The labor class, she says, is largely comprised of Indians, Pakistanis and other ethnic minorities, who she says are roundly mistreated. She says these workers walk on egg shells, afraid of doing or saying anything that might lose them their jobs and get them deported.
“They can just be fired like that and treated like crap. There were times when distinguished Qatari people would slap them if they got in a traffic accident. Abuse.”
A salary of $300 a month is typical, she says, for “so-called lower class workers.” She says the racism-classism she witnessed extended to unfair housing. “One situation involved about 10 to 12 adult men forced to share a three-bedroom apartment provided by the sponsor-employer.”
Flood won’t soon forget the yin and yang of the place, saying, “I saw opulence and poverty, skill and stupidity, beauty and utter repugnance… juxtaposed on a daily basis. That’s what made it magical. I would literally wake up expectant with the reality that I had no idea what would happen that day, every day.”
Jeffers says a weekly day is set aside for families at local shopping centers. Single shoppers are officially banned. But as family day falls on the designated holy day (Friday) most expatriates use to get out and shop she often went to the mall by herself. She says while she and other Westerners “were treated with unabashed high regard” non-Western migrant workers were turned away.
Free, open travel of the kind we know doesn’t exist. The grip of an oppressive regime is felt. “There aren’t many open public spaces you can go,” says Jeffers.
“Living there turned my world completely upside down,” says Flood. “Everything I thought I knew about how the the world worked was proved incorrect, or at best was exceptionally skewed. Our main struggle was trying to run a magazine owned by people who did not have a publishing background, and in a region whose system is strictly censored. Let’s just say our ideals clashed on a daily basis.”
Jeffers still can’t quite decipher her sponsor-employer, the enigmatic and autocratic Ahmed Hassan Bilal.
“Mr. Bilal is so interesting. It’s really hard to explain Mr. Bilal. He can be really funny and open, but then once you challenge him or you have some kind of conflict he gets very angry. ‘This is my way, blah, blah, blah…’ At the very beginning Bryce and I had a lot of clashes with him. We were the two pesky Americans making trouble in his company. I got in trouble a lot. He’s a 75-year old man who comes from a totally different background than me. Very powerful, very rich. He does try to take care of his workers and everything but he also always gets what he wants.
“Still, I came to have a pretty good relationship with him.”
Breaking old habits, Bridges found, is easier said than done. For example, his tendency to want to get down to brass tacks as soon as possible runs counter to how Arabs conduct business, as did his and Jeffers’ tendency to question a man who’s only used to sycophants.
“There’s a certain amount of ritual welcoming — ‘You’re my friend. How are you?’ — that you have to go through before you actually get down to business,” says Bridges. “That was a tough one. It took me a long time to get used to do that. I dealt a lot with Mr. Bilal. He’s a Qatari billionaire and he’s very well known and respected, and I was a brusque American. He would not necessarily tell me how to act but I learned a lot from him about the cultural differences.
“It was a long process.”
Bridges says Bilal “counseled” him on how rude it was to rush things. The behavior modification lectures must have had some effect because, he says, “I have developed a much healthier respect for those small moments of conversation that can happen by breathing instead of speaking. I realize that if I slow down and allow for the ritual then it may give birth to genuine moments.”
The large expatriate community also became a sounding board for dos and donts and a nurturing place where the Americans felt free to be themselves.
Tessa Jeffers and Danae Mercer hanging out, @photo by Jeffrey Reloban Navarro
Bridges says, “There’s just something wonderful about being an expat. The expats come together, they’re all very far away from home and because of that they bond in a very serious way, so there’s an instant kinship. You jump right past the getting to know you phase.
“There’s this sort of implied idea that perhaps one day you may need a couch to sleep on and so the couch is always open or the extra bedroom is always open. The hospitality is pretty phenomenal.”
Tensions with ownership aside, the experience provided personal and professional growth opportunities.
Flood says, “I had the opportunity to really bury myself in my work, and I got to write a ton and at the same time meet people of all nationalities and from all walks of life. That in itself is completely and utterly priceless, and has informed my professional career to the nth degree.”
The opportunity for all four Americans came at the right time. Each was single. And it’s not like they had better offers waiting. The job did mean Bridges ended up apart from his teenage daughter for the better part of a year. But among his motivations in going, he says, was “I wanted my daughter to know that crazy things are possible — there are dreams you can follow or chase.” He says it also afforded a vehicle for him to “selfishly” go “and do something great.”
As things unfolded, Bridges, Jeffers and Co. pressed to get a revamped ABODE out every month, improvising to do more with less in a totally foreign culture and without the full support of ownership.
Inheriting only two full-time office staffers, it was left to Bridges and Jeffers at the outset to handle every editorial function.
“We’re talking 14 hour days. We worked our asses off,” says Bridges. “Tessa bore the brunt because she had to organize the editorial content, find writers, cultivate stories, edit…I ended up doing most of the principal photography (unable to find suitable editorial portraiture shooters) and I contributed a few stories. Writing is a lot harder for me, although I think I can pull it off fairly well. But writing is not my forte.
“We kind of went crazy. Tessa and I obviously bonded. We were the only ones that understood what we were going through. It’s one of the reasons we brought on Kathleen and Danae from Creighton University.”
Danae Mercer later left the team to continue her studies at Cambridge. Kathleen Flood stayed on after her internship was over to become associate editor.
The few staffers who came with the acquisition proved invaluable as well.
“What I’m most proud of is the team and how we came together. We inherited an incredible graphic designer from India in Fauzid Hassan and a helluva salesperson in Deliah Amira Furcoi,” says Bridges.
“The thing about Qatar is you have to have somebody who knows how to get from place to place because there’s no addresses and so basically his job was to distribute and to run things that needed to be run around town and Naseeb Khan (a Pakistani) did a great job.”
The blend of nationalities and backgrounds somehow all meshed.
“The way we worked together was pretty incredible,” says Bridges. “I mean, we had our fights and our disagreements and everything, but I think the publication really looked smart and the way it all came together was pretty incredible.”
Flood says, “As much as this is a story of conflict, it most definitely is a story of friendship. Outside of my family, I’ve never known such support, love and camaraderie before I lived, worked and got to know Tessa, Bryce and Danae. I was schooled.”
Despite not getting many things they wanted, Bridges says, “I think we produced a pretty outstanding publication. We also showed other publishers in Qatar that local content was important. Most of the publications there had little bits of local content but most of it came from other places. When we started getting a little bit of notoriety we noticed those publications began creating more local content.”
“There were a lot of people that respected what we did,” says Jeffers, who notes with pride BODE became a regionally recognized magazine under her and Bridges’ watch.
Dichotomy: Two views of Doha, Qatar
Standing up for what she believed in in a closed society where women are barely seen and rarely heard was a kind of empowering thing. “Living there is like an endurance test,” Jeffers says. “It’s so uncertain living so far away from home. You always have like this weird fear on your shoulder. That’s just the way the culture is.
“The fear was a strong combination of many factors. It was a paralyzing and helpless feeling to be simultaneously beholden somewhere AND to someone, to truly feel trapped in situations out of your control. Even though you’re not in a literal prison at times it felt like a social prison.”
She says more than irritating her social justice sensibilities, the experience toughened her up in a way.
“You just learn to think on your feet all the time. By the end I felt like i could take on anything. It was also magical just being in such a strange melting pot where nothing is certain and where it felt as if there was no accountability. Yes, that’s scary, but it brought people together. People that speak different languages have to find a universal language.”
Says Flood, “I learned how to respect myself in a world where women struggle to be able to do so.”
By late 2009 Bridges was on the outs with ownership.
“It was a lot of butting heads. They became more aggravated tussles,” he says.
Bridges was finally fired. He stayed in Qatar awhile and even after leaving returned to continue a relationship he was in with a woman living there.
Looking back, he feels he may have been naive about certain business considerations but maintains ownership was out of its depth on editorial matters.
“As a whole I absolutely look at it as a positive. It was an unbelievable experience. It was the kind of experience most people are not given. I’m glad I did it.”
With Bridges gone, Jeffers and Flood tarried on for six more months before feeling as though what editorial freedom they’d established was being undercut.
“We did some good work still but finally we wanted to go home.” Jeffers says. “The reason we really wanted to leave is because ownership wanted the magazine to push their properties and self-interests. I’ll never forget the day Mr. Bilal called me up to his office and told me — he didn’t ask — that I was to write an article about his Swiss doctor’s new ‘brain hospital.’”
Leaving wasn’t as simple as she imagined. “I tried to resign, but the sponsorship thing…they prevent you from leaving the country without permission,” she says. Bilal didn’t want her to go. “I would have had to get the embassy involved and everything.” Desperate for a way out, she recruited two rival editors in Doha to assume her and Flood’s positions. She says Bilal and the Shinnawies signed off on the deal when “they realized these new editors were a little more business-like and a little less passionate creatively, and they could kind of manipulate them more.”
Jeffers, too, would like to return one day, only on her terms. She says Qatar has a lot of progress to make if its hosting of the 2022 World Cup is to be well-reviewed. “They aren’t ready for that. Journalists are going to have a field day.”
Apart from the ongoing employer-sponsor machinations that wore on her and the blatant inequality that bothered her, she says much of what she saw inspired her.
“Ramadan was amazing to see. Muslims are so devoted to this time of great fasting.”
The generosity and hospitality of the people, she says, took her aback. “Often complete strangers or people I had just met wanted to give me a gift or to help me.”
Then there are the aesthetics. She admires the “mystical” and “gorgeous” design, adding, “The buildings, the ornamental robes, the heavy makeup and jewelry, all combine to give it an incredible identity unlike anything I have ever experienced.”
As for Flood, she says, “I miss the rawness of Qatar, the freshness of the scene, the dusty sun, the country’s fragrance, the persecuted and exploited beauty, but I am so happy not to have The Fear anymore.
“I want to go back, I need to go back, but it’s going to take some time. I wish for a world that can respect and accept all people regardless of gender or nationality, and I pray for the reality that it may be someday. It will take longer there.”
It took Flood and the others months to decompress from the intense Otherness they were immersed in. Flood’s an editor and a blogger with The Creators Project in New York City. Jeffers left journalism for a period to help run her family’s A&W restaurant in North Platte and today is editor of Premier Guitar magazine.
Bridges continues his freelance photography career and is trying to get yet another magazine, Flyover, off the ground. If he’s learned anything after Medium and ABODE, he says, it’s that he needs to have sufficient capital and control “to protect the integrity of the mission.”
- Is There A Limit to Qatar’s Successes? (theromangate.wordpress.com)
- Qatar’s Delirious Ambitions (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Al Jazeera Deported HIV Positive Journalist from Qatar (ibtimes.com)
- Migrants workers flock to Qatar (bbc.co.uk)
- Doha Journal: Doha, Qatar, Glitters Like a World City, but Few Feel at Home (nytimes.com)
- The misadventures of Doha, Qatar – Doha, Qatar (travelpod.com)