In a socially conservative country like Qatar, where young men and women are often discouraged from interacting with each other, some are always willing to get creative to skirt social norms.
A relatively obvious strategy that’s been employed has been to meet and court members of the other gender in broad daylight from the safety of one’s own vehicles. In recent months, the gathering spot of choice for many Arab men and women has been Shakespeare Street, at Katara Cultural Village.
There, a parade of cars cruise up and down the street almost every afternoon. The men drive in a long oval shape, looping around the street’s roundabouts. The women, dressed in oversize sunglasses, loose-fitting hijabs and a fair dab of makeup, do the same. Most cars have their windows down, and music on.
In theory, the way it works is this: If a guy in his car spots a girl he likes, he will toss her his mobile phone number. She can either accept his number by keeping it with her, or reject the number by tossing it out the window. Likewise, if a girl spots a guy she likes, she will toss him her phone number.
It’s a ritual that has puzzled and invited attention from expats, visitors to Katara and even the police department at times.
Because these young men and women have few chances to interact in person, trading phone numbers allows for an easier form of communication than face-to-face contact, according to Dr. Moza Al-Malki, a prominent Qatari psychologist.
Segregation in school and with marriageable family members is not uncommon once kids hit puberty, she explained.
“I think because they are segregating boys and girls from their childhood, they can’t see their cousins – and this is not normal in so many societies,” explains Al-Malki.
From the age of 12 or 13 years old, families draw gender lines between cousins, she told Doha News. “In my opinion, this is not healthy,” she said.
The “car-dating” phenomenon is not a new development for Qatar. Such convoys have been known to gather at malls and smaller compounds, and Katara is just the latest gathering point, one young expat who is familiar with the custom told Doha News.
Because a few popular eateries are situated at the end of Shakespeare Street, not everyone who drives through the promenade comes with the intention of picking up a phone number.
But their intentions can be misunderstood, and some of these visitors end up being harassed by the regulars. Occasionally, witnesses have observed groups of men approach the cars of visitors, knocking on the windows and depositing slips of paper with their phone numbers on them.
Police cars and Internal Security Forces appear to be aware of the situation, and do conduct rounds there – sometimes several times a day – to monitor the situation.
In addition to harassment of visitors, the ritual can also add to congestion on Katara’s streets – especially during evenings and weekends – greatly slowing down the pace of traffic.
“(But) this is not a real relationship,” says the Qatari psychologist says. “They are just wasting their time.”
If the situation has arisen simply out of boredom, Al-Malki suggests young men could find other ways to pass the time:
“It’s a beautiful idea – instead of going and driving there (at Katara), they go the racecourse and they do whatever they want, under supervision. Why don’t they go there?”
According to one young man familiar with the Shakespeare Street ritual, though, it’s that lack of “supervision” that makes it so appealing, combined of course with the thrill of getting a bit of attention from the opposite sex, and scoring a few phone numbers.
Oussama, who preferred to be identified only by his first name, explains that Shakespeare Street is filled with two different crowds at different times of the day:
The first – lunchtime – coincides with the break times of some colleges and high schools that are close by. The lunchtime hooking up seems to have a more “innocent” feel to it. The girls are there to get the sort of attention from guys that they are usually not allowed to get.
Many papers with numbers written on them are thrown into the girls’ cars, and they find joy in the ability to either throw them outside the window, or keep them for later use. It is an odd way for this sort of “unreleased social energy,” but it’s obvious where it’s coming from.
In the evening, it’s an older crowd heading to Katara, he continues.
“After midnight, Shakespeare’s Street in Katara becomes a destination for men who are looking for something more,” he says. “A girl who goes there after midnight is probably thinking likewise.”
He adds that the men sometimes “throw money and phones into the girls’ cars, hoping that one day they will get the Blackberry pin of ‘the girl of their dreams.’ ”
Several people observed participating in the convoy declined to comment.
Have you taken part or seen the ritual on the Shakespeare St.? Thoughts?