If part of the point of being an expat is to experience what’s new and different in your adopted home country, then the very existence of a National Day puts Qatar one up on the UK.
The day itself was this week (18th), but the preparations have been going on for weeks. And they got me thinking about my own sense of national identity and what impact, if any, three months outside my home country had made.
Whatever your view on the celebrations themselves (full disclosure: silly string and muscle car parades aren’t really my thing) it is nevertheless a capital-E-Experience to live somewhere where a national day exists at all, is a public holiday and is celebrated wildly by a grateful nation.
The UK has a sprinkling of annual holidays, all of which are precision-engineered not to offend anyone by exclusion. Regard this list and quiver with anticipation at the thought of such rabble-rousing excuses for a barbecue as, er, ‘Early May bank holiday’ and ‘Spring bank holiday’.
Who says we don’t know how to have a good time, eh?
It’s the sign of a country which feels it ought to do something, but isn’t precisely sure what, and is therefore the very essence of what it’s like to be British.
England has a patron saint (St George) who we could celebrate, but we’ve never done so. No such timidity north of the border; the Scots made St Andrew’s Day a national holiday at pretty much the first opportunity they could after the devolution of powers.
Ask an Englishman when American Independence Day is, or when the Irish celebrate St Patrick’s, and they’ll have no problem telling you. But ask them when St George’s Day is and I guarantee far fewer will get it right (it’s April 23; also Shakespeare’s birthday, trivia fans).
Meanwhile, around the world, there’s a smorgasbord of excuses for a national day. Countries go all out celebrating their independence from us Brits, or the birthday of a monarch, or a Saint’s day, or an ascension to the throne, a unification, a revolution…
You can even change your mind, like Qatar did a few years ago, and pick a different day to celebrate a different reason. Since 2008 it’s been 18 December (celebrating the assumption of power by Sheikh Jassem bin Mohamed al-Thani in 1878) but before that it was September 3 (Independence Day).
(This mindset strikes me as very Qatari, and you can already see it applied to the Doha skyline. Don’t like that five-storey building that went up a few years ago? No worries; just knock it down and build a new 30-storey one in its place.)
So, with all those excuses for a day off, you’d think we’d have agreed on something by now. But no. Along with Wales and Denmark and just about nobody else, England does nothing.
That’s not to say the seeds of something haven’t been planted. In recent years a more defined “English” identity has started to emerge, partly I suspect in response to the Scots’ vigorous assertion of their own cultural identity.
But still St George’s Day will come and go, un-holidayed, in England. You’ll see more Crosses of St George (the English flag) stuck to car roofs in the build-up to a football tournament than you ever will in April.
The problem is that the Union flag (the British flag) is still loaded with symbolism, much of it rooted in the days of colonialism and the British Empire, all of which we’re now culturally unsure what to think about, so we do the very British thing of not thinking about it at all.
Far better to form a queue somewhere, preferably in the rain, or tut at something we disapprove of, or reply “Fine, thanks” to absolutely every single instance of “How are you?” ever, even when you’re absolutely, categorically not.
That’s the British way.
So to be in Doha this week, and experience at first hand the uncomplicated pride that Qataris take in their country, is pretty irresistible. After all, it takes time, effort, pride and money to want to plaster a set of bespoke patriotic decals all over a Land Cruiser just for one day.
As for National Day itself, you’ll recognise the ingredients from any other big event: corporate sponsors, live rolling TV coverage, dedicated hashtag (#QND12), a royal walkabout and a massive military parade.
We skipped the parade as it was scheduled to start at 8am – far too early for a day off – even though, as is the local custom, it ended up being severely delayed.
Instead, we headed for Aspire Park – the capital’s biggest – where the National Day message must have got lost en route. There, the over-zealous security guards were far more interested in trying to stop Kid A from riding her bike.
Judging from the number of ashtrays dotted about the empty park, smokers are more than welcome, but an eight year old who wants to get some exercise evidently poses some of kind of threat to public order.
We spent the afternoon taking in the delights of the temporary National Day exhibition at Darb El-Saai. For those of you who’ve ever spent a happy September weekend wandering around the Newbury Show, it was basically that, only instead of sheep, goats and cows, there were camels, oryx and falcons.
We headed home as the sun started to set and the unofficial parade of flags and cars began heading for the Corniche.
If a country’s national day celebrations are about a communal celebration of culture, attitude and pastimes, then it makes total sense that we English haven’t got a clue what to do with ourselves, whilst Qataris instinctively create a six-hour traffic jam just for fun.
Christmas bonus: If you’re unsure what the precise difference between England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom is, make a cuppa and take five minutes to watch this; it’s rather lovely.