“Qatar,” I heard Carnegie Mellon’s head of media relations say. “We’ve got to find some way to peg this place in people’s minds. I think we need to put up top that it’s in the Persian Gulf.”
Luckily for me she was simultaneously passing around a stack of press releases titled, “DRAFT: Carnegie Mellon Launches Undergraduate Branch in Qatar.” Otherwise, I’d have had no idea what she was talking about. Prior to this conversation I’d never even heard of “CU’ ter,” as she called it. I’d always thought it was pronounced “q’ TAAR.”
The director looked around the room, then focused on me. “You lived in the Muslim world before, Lisa. What do you think?”
At the time I was living in Pittsburgh with my husband of two years. I was a freelance PR and branding consultant, while he was the editor of a local newsweekly.
Usually I consulted from home, but that day I was working out of their main PR office, a converted space on the first floor of an old Victorian house on campus. The university had been a client of mine for a couple of years at that point, and while I’d made it known I’d been a volunteer with the Peace Corps in Tunisia, I never mentioned I’d been kicked out. Sensing potential new business, I wasn’t about to mention it now.
I agreed most Americans were geographically challenged and Googled Qatar from my desk. The first thing I clicked on was a map. So THAT’S where it is, Ithought, looking at a narrow peninsula nestled between Saudi Arabia and Dubai. The map also indicated that the country was home to the U.S.’s largestoffshore military base, Central Command, CentCom for short.
According to the release, the school was about to announce the opening of a new campus in the country’s capital city of Doha, alongside the likes of Weill Cornell and Georgetown. This would be their first undergraduate branch outside the main campus in Pittsburgh, PA.
“We should put in that Al Jazeera’s there, too,” I added, pleased when no one else in the room knew this fact. Or was able to type faster than me, anyway. I never would have imagined that three months later, I’d be living there.
Two weeks later…
My cell phone rang and I fished it out of my pocket and squinted at the number. No idea. If I’d been home in Pittsburgh I probably wouldn’t have picked up, but I was in Barstow, CA, working media for the DARPA Grand Challenge, an autonomous vehicle race backed by the U.S. government to further military research. This event brought the tech-geek journos out of the woodwork. It was probably one of them from God knows where calling with some fancy gadget. A cloud of dust kicked up in front of me as an unmanned motorcycle fell over in the dirt.
“Happy anniversary, baby,” I heard over a scratchy line.
How my husband had managed to get his hands on a satellite phone I couldn’t imagine–he was in Iraq. Best anniversary present ever. Everyone should have a Geoff.
While part of me would have liked to have been the kind of wife who could successfully protest her husband’s absence for this annual ritual; I was the kind who hadn’t even tried. By the time my other half arranged his trip, I had already agreed to take this gig. We’d chuckled at the irony, while he was off pushing peace, I would be promoting warfare technology. To me it was the crux of our love, this mutual ability to support one another.
“I just wanted you to know before you heard about it on TV,” he went on. “The huge bomb that just went off was the hotel next door. Not my hotel. I’m fine. We’re all fine.”
It was March 2004, one year since Bush had given his “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the aircraft carrier the USS Lincoln. The U.S. media had stopped talking about “the end” and now simply referred to “the war,” but the anniversary did not go unnoticed by Al Qaida. They used the occasion to ramp up attacks against foreigners, especially journalists like my spouse. They would not have known he was there on a volunteer mission, aimed at proving the war was far from over. Of all the horrible scenarios I’d imagined since he’d announced this junket, incidental bombing was one I’d refused to think about. My imaginings ran more along the lines of his being taken hostage, and then released because the kidnappers would realize what a decent human being they’d captured.
“This is where the world news is happening,” he went on, sounding more excited than he had in a long time. “It would be so great to live out here. Become a foreign correspondent.”
Many people, on hearing their partner express such a whim, might murmur politely and change the subject. But, I’d grown up in a family where geographic change was the norm. By the time I was 12 we’d moved nine times. In my experience, once the time a desire to relocate was announced, you were as good as gone. I wasn’t going to sit back and watch him go without me. I’d been thinking of the university’s Qatar campus as an opportunity to get some more work and maybe rack up the frequent flier miles, but moving to the region could be Geoff’s ticket to the next rung on the career ladder. As the editor of our town’s alternative newsweekly, he’d already reached the pinnacle of success. It was not financially viable. Not if we were ever going to have a family. The university was offering three-year contracts, which would give him plenty of time to establish himself in his new career, and be just in time for me to start having children.
In the course of that conversation I didn’t miss a beat.
“What would you say to Qatar?”
Three months later, I was living there.