2014 | Issue Six | Nonfiction
WHEN I MOVED to Doha to teach, the first thing that made an impression on me was the heat, but that was quickly followed by the dust. Counter to expectations, and the hopeful bon voyage sentiments of friends and family, Qatar boasted no “at least it’s a dry heat” heat. Rather, it’s a marine desert, and once the salty sea air reaches your skin, it creates a perfect palette for the dust. This I experienced as soon as I stepped off the plane. It was August. The railing I gripped on the way down to the tarmac was tacky. Wet dust coated everything, and then it coated me.
Over the next several weeks, as I became more acquainted with my new home, I realized that to love Doha would mean to love the dust and its residual beige, because the desert left its mark everywhere—on every building, every car, even on the sky.
I come from New Jersey—the Shore, more specifically—a many-colored place, despite what a layover at Newark Airport might lead you to believe. The beach is brassy and blue, sunsets spectacular, and you only have to travel a bit inland to find it evergreen and lush in the summer, autumnal in the autumn, and all variations of gray in the winter. Doha has only two seasons: more hot and less hot. Beige and dust remain the constants.
But Doha has thunder sand—winter storms, flushed south from Iran by the Shamaal winds, which twist barometers and drop the temperature twenty degrees in twenty minutes. They blot out the sun or, if they come at night, disguised as brown clouds, produce hazy veins of lightning. Thunder sand is spectacular. Not quite in the Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol presentation of it, where Tom Cruise outruns a vanquishing storm by speeding through the markets of Dubai. You can drive through thunder sand. You can survive it. You will not be suffocated. But it is spectacular all the same.
Qatar and its sand and dust are made mostly of limestone. In the northwest of the country—an area known as Zikreet that faces the Gulf and the tiny island of Bahrain—plateaus of the rock have been eaten away by the wind. They hover over the pale Martian landscape like craggy mushrooms, their sides worn so smooth that they are impossible to scale. Jebels, they are called. My students, Qataris most, told me that Zikreet was the haunted desert, the dwelling of djinn, those creatures out of which our Disneyified concept of “genies” has grown. But true djinn are Quranic demons, shapeshifters you fear at once but cannot escape until you do their bidding. A djinni’s appearance is first heralded by a shimmer of the air, and then as you travel on, forgetting this disturbance, you will come upon a stranger—one with a snarled tooth, or a milky eye or a scent about him that just doesn’t seem right. If you engage this stranger, this djinni made flesh, you will find yourself in his thrall, and not the other way around.
I mention the djinn and the haunted desert of Zikreet to explain to you that Qatar, the whole of the Gulf even, is a land still connected in some (mostly religious) ways to what we—academically, reductively—might view as folk mythology. The weather and heat suit these beliefs. So does the living memory of a time before oil and gas wealth, when tents and camels, carpets and campfires, provided backdrops to such stories. I had students in one class explain how hard it was for them to trust Omanis, their Southern neighbors, because it was widely known that they practice black magic. Hearing this, the Omani student in the class nodded, as though carefully considering the accusation.
So when I came upon the article about Dingy in The Gulf Times, I was surprised, but not shocked. The Gulf Times is the major English-language paper in the country and a copy could be found in the faculty lounge every morning. This particular headline read, “Mysterious Figure Spotted on Doha’s Corniche.” And there, on the front page, was a grainy color photo of a muscular, burnt-looking creature with probing white eyes and a dog-like snout, standing upright next to a pile of rubble. The article, which was a reprint of one that had appeared in the local Arabic daily Al Sharq, described one witness who “took a picture of [the creature] in spite of being terribly frightened.” It also mentioned that this “mysterious figure” was spotted by many more people, a small crowd, “who also attested to the fact of what she had seen.” Apparently, the creature “suddenly disappeared out of their sight when they tried to go near it.” All were left to wonder: What was this creature? Why was he on the Corniche? When would he return?
The Corniche is the water walk along Doha’s bay. It’s in the middle of the city, bordered by the most expensive and elaborate skyscrapers money can buy, and it’s frequented by local and expat families on picnics, power walkers and migrant workers who like to fish. It would be hard for any creature, even one slightly mysterious in nature, to stroll unnoticed here. And this one was very mysterious indeed, not to mention publicly nude in a Muslim country.
This was 2009, and the region was not yet brimming with political news, not yet garnering the kind of global exposure it has seen of late, as a base for Arab League peace talks, and as controversial host of a future World Cup. Lack of major news notwithstanding, it was the front-page placement of the story that perplexed me. So I cut it out and called up my friend Lesley, who had been living in the Gulf for several years, to ask her about it.
“Oh, you mean Dingy?” she asked, when I brought up the mysterious creature.
“He has a name?”
“The crispy little guy on the front page?” she asked.
“Yeah, that’s the one,” I said.
She told me she and her husband John had read the article and nicknamed the monster Dingy (hard “g”) because he looked suspiciously like their neighbor’s disfigured cat, also named Dingy. They suspected Dingy the Cat to be in possession of magical powers that enabled him to walk upright from their neighborhood of Al Sadd all the way downtown, where he could take in the sea breezes on the Corniche and frighten innocent bystanders.
“You’re crazy and this place is bizarre,” I told her. “This is like a National Enquirer headline, but it’s not in a tabloid.”
“We should go Dingy hunting,” she said, and laughed, unfazed.
As I said, I come from Weird New Jersey, a land with no shortage of strange places and mythical characters. The Gates of Hell, Midgetville and the shark that inspired Jaws find happy company alongside more familiar examples of freakishness, not limited to Snooki, Chris Christie and Atlantic City.
The most famous of these, of course, is the Jersey Devil. Resident of the southern Pine Barrens—New Jersey’s “backwoods”—the Devil is a favorite of hikers and hockey fans alike. Allegedly the thirteenth and final child of a colonial-era farmer’s wife named Mother Leeds, it was born a devil and quickly grew to terrorize the rural landscape. Into the early twentieth century, the Devil was the star subject of local lore, with reports of sightings, attacks and livestock killings attributed to the beast oft recounted in the local papers. In 1909, during a particularly contagious spate of Devil hysteria, schools were shut down to protect area children. I’ve never camped or hiked in the Pine Barrens and I’m generally not superstitious, but I do find myself growing slightly queasy when I think about this part of my home state. In a place so well charted, so claimed and populated, the Pine Barrens alone is none of these things. Driving through it on the turnpike, the land seems bleak and silent and full of gray trees. And it’s rumored that the footprints you find there belong to neither animal nor human.
I was frequently homesick during my first year in Doha. My problems were ridiculous, but they took some time to solve: I had too few friends and too much money and living space. I spent most of my non-teaching time camped out in one room of the massive three bedroom high-rise apartment provided by my school, drinking Nescafe and obsessively watching the BBC and Al Jazeera, the headquarters of which I passed every day on my ride to work. It was exciting to feel so “in the world” suddenly, at close proximity to the news, but remote and safe from it at the same time. I suppose the company of elegant-voiced anchors and real-time events made me feel less alone, as did the fact that the information I was accessing could just as easily be accessed in New York or DC.
I did not expect the news in Doha to remind me of home’s eccentricities so quickly. But there it was one morning as I drank my coffee, staring up at me with bulging white eyes. I was in cryptid country once more.
Evidence was everywhere, but Dingy would not resurface. I walked the Corniche some weekend mornings and evenings, but it was all kite-flying and lounging in the grass, no shrieks by the fountain, no huddles of intrigue.
I asked my students about him, showed them the article to see what they’d say.
“That’s a lie,” they said, laughing. “It’s not real.”
“But what about djinn?” I entreated. “What about black magic?”
“Well, those things are more serious,” they said, seriously.
When, several weeks later, the school went on lockdown because a tiger was roaming the campus, conspiracy theories reigned supreme once more. The news reports stated the animal belonged to a sheikh and had been loose in the city for days, last seen in West Bay, my neighborhood. The picture in the paper this time was of the tiger on the sidewalk, sniffing at a villa’s garbage can.
“Hey Mahmoud,” one student exclaimed. “It’s your grandfather!”
Sure enough, there was Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian President, under the lede, frowning over the future of his country. His grandson, my student, Mahmoud Jr., nodded. And then we all went back to speculating about the tiger.
“It’s Photoshopped,” said one student.
“Well, there must be something going on outside,” said another. “We’re on lockdown.”
“He came here because he wants to eat the horses at Al Shaqab, at the stables,” one girl said, holding up her phone.
“The tiger texted you that?” I asked.
“No, my friend, Aisha—she did.”
I should have returned their attention to our lesson on proper citation, but instead I took it as a teachable moment and went to my office to grab the Dingy clipping. I returned to my students, still texting and chatting, and held it up for them once more.
“Remember this guy?” I asked.
“He’s not real, Miss,” they said.
“Are you sure?” I asked, voice squeaking.
“Look.” One girl turned her computer to face us. “He’s a toy.”
And there, on some random myth buster’s blog, was a photo of a rubber doll, with musculature similar to Dingy’s, with Dingy’s exact snarl, held tight in the small hands of a child.
“Well, I wouldn’t call that a reputable source,” I told her.
“What’s a reputable source?”
“A source you can trust,” I said. “Haven’t you been listening?”
“I have,” she whined. “But, Miss, how do you know?”
“If you can trust it?” I asked her.
“Yeah,” she said, eyes blinking. Her classmates regarded me with equal interest.
“Well, how do you know if you can trust something someone tells you?”
“If I believe it.”
“But what makes you believe it?”
“I just want to or I don’t.” She shrugged. “That’s all.”
So we went back to the lesson, revisiting criteria and critical thought, though mostly we were distracted, listening for gunshots, roars, sounds of the tiger’s last stand. They never came, and eventually the lockdown was lifted.
If today you try to search for the Dingy article on The Gulf Times website, a 404 server error returns in its place. Up until a year ago, the story was still available. So times have changed—Qatar’s top-selling English-language daily not only no longer runs front page pseudoscience articles, it has also wiped its history of them.
I, too, have lost all hard evidence of Dingy’s brief moment of legitimacy. The newspaper cutout I vowed to save has vanished in my return to America—my relocation to the hills of Texas, a land of clear skies and straight talk. To tell of Dingy or the tiger in this new place is to talk of my past homes, places where it’s possible that devils are devils, and dust isn’t just dust. 💣
LAUREN MAAS is a writer and editor based in Providence, Rhode Island.
Copyright Lauren Maas
Photo by George Allen