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Celebrating Qatari History at the American School of Doha

By Matt Errico
Celebrating Qatari History at the American School of Doha

The American School of Doha’s (ASD) student body consists of over 70 nationalities, but the Grade 6 students recently stood as one in celebration of Qatar History Day.
The annual event, organized by teachers Robb and Linda Hoiseth and parent volunteer Samar Elias, actually encompasses two days, but its goal is singular: to enhance the understanding of Qatar’s rich history and its meteoric rise from a poor, pearl diving country to one of staggering affluence.
On the first day, students interviewed over 30 Qatari citizens or long-term residents in small-group settings. During these sessions, students gleaned oral histories to record for posterity.
Steve Leever, ASD’s middle school principal, emphasized the significance of these meetings: “Seldom in history have we seen a country go through so many stages of development in such a short period of time. To hear the stories of those who have lived through those changes is a very rare and important experience for our students.”
Students heard about “sweet” water wells in the north of Qatar. They heard about the first imported cars brought in on dhows, and how Qatari fashion and architecture evolved to combat harsh sandstorms. They heard tales of street barbers, water carriers, and pearl divers. They heard about the first gas station, and the rocky roads with few street lamps that caused frequent car accidents.
One student shared his favorite story: “Before the first air conditioners, our guest said during summers her family would put a bed sheet in water and then hang it in the window to cool the air.” Another student shared her gem about how “a long time ago, families would hoist watermelons deep into water wells to keep them cool during Ramadan.”
Yet another recounted a children’s game shared by writer and researcher Frances Gillespie: “When Qatari boys were children they would play a game called, “Is he dead or alive?” One boy had to wrap a shawl around his head. The other boys would bury his head in the sand and ask, “Is he dead or alive?” The boy with his head in the sand answered “yes” until he ran out of breath. Then he had to depend on his friends to save him. The game helped them prepare to be pearl divers.”
Ms. Hoiseth explained that Qatar History Day is “based around one that we started at the American School of Warsaw. They are still doing Living History Day, which I believe is in its 13th year, where they interview survivors of World War Two. I know that similar projects have happened in London and Tel Aviv.”
At ASD, Qatar History Day is in its third year. The personal stories collected are ultimately published and shared via student-created websites, and they therefore create an ever-growing archive for future generations.
“What better way to learn about a country than to hear stories from people who are ‘living histories’? As we hear about different traditions and stories, we appreciate Qatari culture on a deeper level and feel proud that we are able to experience this remarkable country,” added ASD director Deborah Welch.
The second day culminated in a visit to the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum, which houses over 15,000 artifacts including bicycles built in the 1880s; a Ford Model T; dhows and pearl diving equipment; and even a replica of a Qatari house, with many of Sheik Faisal’s personal items on display.
Dressed in traditional Qatari clothing, the teachers and students toured the museum’s exhibits and photographed specific artifacts related to the oral histories shared during the previous day’s interviews.
One Grade 6 student explained, “Since in our interview we heard a story about being born in a tent instead of a hospital, we definitely took a lot of photographs of the Bedouin tent in the museum for our website.”
Dr. Leever concluded, “Our Qatar History Day is always a very meaningful event for our students, as they learn from the personal experiences of our local Qatari population. The gift of the sharing of those experiences is one that our guests give to our students. What a tremendous gift it is!”

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