Desert Wind: My Life in Qatar—Peter Fortunato’s memoir—is due to be published by Cayuga Lake Books in spring 2023. In the following interview with intern Gretchen Buchmann, he responds to some questions about the memoir and about Qatar itself.
Why did you want to write a memoir based on your years in Qatar?
I was living and working in Qatar, from 2005 until 2009, four years that were eventful both for the country and for me personally. I had stories I wanted to tell from the moment I arrived in Doha, Qatar’s capital. I kept a journal, wrote poems, and began an email chronicle of my adventures that I regularly mailed to friends around the world. Hardly anyone outside of the Persian Gulf region knew anything much about Qatar in those days! During my years over there, Qatar was named as the host of the 2022 World Cup of Football, which is happening as I write this in December 2022. I believe that my memoir will be of interest to people who want to learn something more than the typical mass-media accounts about this small, very wealthy desert nation, its rise to international prominence, and the many contradictions its people contend with.
Among your adventures are your story of participating on horseback in a filmed reenactment of a famous historical battle. How did that come about?
I’ve always been interested in Arabian horses, and in high school I worked on a world famous breeding farm near where I grew up. So it was inevitable that I’d find my way in Qatar to the riding club of the royal stables. My trainer knew how much I liked to ride out in the desert—Arabian horses really come alive in their natural element! One day, out of the blue, he asked me be if I’d like to be in a movie that was to be shot next morning. I would be riding with traditional Arabian gear and wearing a historical costume. We would reenact a battle that actually took place on the plain where the riding school was now located, but we’d be out among the sand dunes in the wild part of the country. It was a dream come true for me, and my memoir devotes a chapter to the shoot and to the film’s premiere in the National Theater at the Doha Cultural Festival.
The news has recently exposed Qatar for treating their workers unjustly. Did you witness anything like that in the early 2000s?
The lives of foreign laborers and construction workers, and the injustices they regularly suffer were already well documented before I arrived, long before the building of the stadia to host the football tournament. But Qatar isn’t the only nation under scrutiny for its labor practices: throughout the Middle East, wealthy countries often turn a blind eye to the exploitation of unskilled laborers that large companies import from Central and South Asia. I go into that a little in the memoir, but it’s not my primary focus. Others have written in depth about this.
Did you feel any pressure to hide your Buddhist religion while in Qatar?
I didn’t really have to hide the fact that I’m a Buddhist—there were many Buddhists from places like Nepal and Sri Lanka—but the local sharia, or Islamic law, sternly prohibits anything that might be construed as proselytizing for a religion other than Islam. In my classrooms at Weill Cornell Medical College, I was careful not to talk too much about Buddhism, although I did innovate a meditative technique for future doctors, which I called guided reverie and psycho-somatic sensing.
Was it difficult to adjust culturally in Qatar? What kind of cultural differences were the most difficult to adjust to?
I had traveled in Egypt a couple of times before I went to Qatar and so I was somewhat familiar with Arab and Islamic culture. However, living under sharia law could be challenging. This was partly because there were many local rules that foreigners—including Muslims from other countries—needed to become acquainted with. Sharia is based on local interpretations of Islamic teachings, by the way; something that people from non-Muslim cultures might not know. Because I was committed to my work at the medical school, I adapted to and simply had to accept some aspects of life in Qatar that I didn’t agree with or that I regarded as oppressive. The subservience of women to male members of their families is one example, as is the glaring classicism that keeps laborers at the bottom of the social hierarchy. I always felt like a guest worker, even though I had permanent resident status, and I knew that if I violated certain rules I could be deported or worse. The other challenge for my acculturation was that I’m a country boy at heart—my love of horses stems from that—and the Qataris are in the process of urbanizing as much of their desert as possible. Doha was a noisy, glittery, city under constant construction while I was there, and friends tell me it continues to be so today!
Is there anything you learned in Qatar, whether culturally, spiritually, or generally that has lasted with you since your experience there?
My life in Qatar made a profound impression on me, and in the memoir I share very candidly what was most important both professionally and personally. One of the most important takeaways I want to share with readers, especially non-Muslims in the West, is that Islam has many beautiful, inspiring facets, and has much in common with Judaism and Christianity. I was raised as a devout Roman Catholic during a rather conservative era for American Catholics, and so I had a useful frame of reference for what I observed about Islam as it was generally expounded in Qatar. Since I was living somewhere that provided no external support for my Buddhist spirituality, I was inspired to reflect deeply about it and to write about it in my memoir.