School of Communication

April 21, 2010

Northwestern in the Middle East

A group of School of Communication and Medill School of Journalism students traveled to the NU-Q campus in Doha, Qatar. What they found was that NU-Q was pretty different—but also very similar—to their own Northwestern experience.

Photos by Rosalie Sangenitto (junior, RTVF/art theory and practice), Noreen Nasir (junior, broadcast journalism), and David Wille (senior, communication studies/Asian and Middle Eastern studies).

Travel Logs

  • by Gabe
  • by David

Gabe Brotman, Class of 2012

Sunday, March 20

After sixteen hours of transit, NU-E finally arrived in Qatar! Tired and anxious, the NU-E group still “ooohed” and “ahhed” our way through downtown Doha on the way to our hotel. Doha's skyline is radically different from the sleek spires of Chicago. In the Persian Gulf, architecture fuses ancient features, such as arches, domes, and geometrical patterns, with the latest engineering technology. The sight of a twisted glass building, caged with changing LED lights prompted one student to ask the group, “Am I in the future?”

Doha’s eyes are certainly focused on the future. Within the first hour in the city, we could already witness the remarkable potential of this emerging metropolis.

Monday, March 21

By 6 a.m., Doha wakes up - cranes are functioning, cement is being poured, and large pieces of glass are raised into the air. The skyline is still under construction.

Our first day in Doha began at Education City, where we met with Dean John Margolis to discuss NU-Q’s progress and future plans. Like Doha, NU-Q is an ongoing project, with a new state-of-the-art building being completed in 2012 and a growing student population. However, Northwestern’s roots have already been planted. As we walked down the halls of the extensive Carnegie Mellon building - NU-Q’s temporary home - we were greeted by purple banners, student group posters, and dynamic students discussing student life, politics, and film.

During the day, we attended two seminars with our NU-Q peers. The first was an intimate discussion with Medill professor David Abrahamson about literary journalism in the Middle East and the West. Later we spoke with Bill Bindley (C84), a visiting film writer/producer/director, who spoke on how the American film industry is adapting to technology and shifting demographics.

We also attended NU-Q classes. The School of Communication group attended an undergraduate seminar with associate professor of communication studies James Schwoch, in which we explored representations of espionage-intelligence security in film, television, and new media.

The day concluded with a Syrian dinner at Villagio Mall, the newest addition to Qatar’s shopping culture. Surrounded by a canal, ice skating rink, and hundreds of shops, we were able to spend time with our NU-Q peers.

Tuesday, March 23

We started our day at Al Jazeera’s headquarters outside Doha. As we toured the studios, we talked with a news presenter, bureau chiefs, and video editors about challenges with the 24-hour news cycle, new media’s effect on television news, and how Al Jazeera plans to capitalize on the North American market. The studio tour was a highlight of the week (see sidebar).

We left Al Jazeera for an afternoon of meetings with faculty and deans, where we shared our academic interests, thoughts on NU-Q, and discussed the challenges the start-up campus faces. Later, NU-E students shared their work with NU-Q students. While Medill students travelled to Al Mergab Street for an enterprise reporting class, School of Communication students shared their film work in assistant professor Tim Wilkerson’s media construction class. One of the great benefits of the exchange was coordinating future collaboration between the two campuses, including presenting NU-Q films at Studio 22’s annual film premiere.

Wednesday, March 24

After two days in Education City, it was time for the group to get out and see Doha. We spent two hours sailing on the Persian Gulf on a Dhow boat, a traditional double-decker originally used for fishing. As we danced to music and put our faces to the blazing sun, we got to see Doha’s beauty and energy - the ever-changing skyline, the luxurious resorts, and the low-flying planes shuttling to and from the airport.

As we sailed farther away from the coastline, we saw a fleet of ships transporting sand to the Pearl, a multibillion-dollar development project of artificial islands being constructed off the coast of Doha. We decided to go see the Pearl ourselves. The four million square meter site is jaw-dropping. Designed to look like an Italian Renaissance Village, the Pearl is the first land in Qatar to be available for freehold ownership by foreign nationals.

We returned to Education City to join NU-Q students in their weekly Film Night. We viewed a Japanese film, Afterlife, and participated in a discussion afterward with Brian Cagle, lecturer in radio/television/film.

Thursday, March 25

On our last morning in Doha, we visited the Islamic Museum of Art. Designed by world-renowned architect I.M. Pei, the structure boasts one of the world’s most complete collections of Islamic artifacts.

We ended our trip with a night of shopping and dining at Souq Waqif, or “standing market.” Recently restored, the hundred-year old Souq is a central destination for both tourists and Qataris who want to buy traditional garments, spices, handmade crafts, and souvenirs. As we enjoyed a delicious traditional Bedouin meal, we were sad to leave Doha and our new NU-Q friends.

David Wille, class of 2010

Northwestern University in Qatar began with an effort by the Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al-Missned, the second wife of the Emir of Qatar, who spearheaded the project to modernize higher education in her country. The newest of six American universities, NU-Q offers degree programs from the School of Communications and Medill School of Journalism, and is now in its second year of operation with about 80 sophomore and freshmen students.

Our trip to Qatar's capital city began the afternoon of March 20 with a fourteen-hour flight, first to Abu Dhabi and then to Doha. I was among 16 other Medill and Communications students, along with a few administrators, who visited Qatar and Education City where NU-Q currently runs out of the top floor of the enormous Carnegie Mellon building. The University is waiting for its own building to be completed sometime in the next few years. Our stay lasted only four days, but left an impression which many of us didn't expect.

A characteristic of Doha which our group found startling was the huge number of building projects which dot the skyline and cover acres of lots across the city and out into the suburbs. While in the United States urban development has ground to a standstill, Doha remains one of the few cities that continues to grow. Looking out of the hotel window you can spot at least half a dozen cranes in every direction. Doha’s growth has been funded primarily through oil and natural-gas revenue, as in other Gulf States, but the building has primarily occurred only in the last decade. Students I spoke with described the city’s skyline as changing rapidly, almost disturbingly so, from small hotels to the skyscrapers seen today. That campaign of building had effects similar to other Gulf States – such a small Qatari population required large numbers of foreign laborers to work the oil fields, build the roads and skyscrapers, and perform more unskilled services. These workers come from all over the world, but particularly other, non-oil Arab states like Egypt, as well as South Asia. Figures for the population of expatriates vary widely but conservative estimates put the total population of Qatar at about 1.4 million, with only three hundred thousand native Qatari citizens.

Our first meeting with Dean Margolis was in an elaborate sitting room on the main floor of the Carnegie Mellon building, reserved most of the time for meetings with the Sheikha Moza. There he gave us his vision for Northwestern’s mission in Doha: to transform journalism and communications in the region. He described the state of journalism in Qatar as “anemic,” and his goal to assist the development of the Qatari film and media industries, as well as the development of Qatari students. At full capacity NU-Q would house 160 students, 40 in a class, about half of whom would be Qatari nationals.

Margolis talked about the two programs at NU-Q. The curriculum for communications students is a hybrid of the Communication Studies and RTVF requirements and called “Media Industries and Technologies,” while the journalism students take the standard curriculum. Margolis then turned to the question which most intrigued us: where was Northwestern getting the money for this operation? Here we first learned of the Qatar Foundation, a seemingly omnipresent organization which had built Education City and funded all of its activities – paying the bills for the universities and the salaries of the faculty and staff, including those at Northwestern. The Dean assured us, however, that QF had absolutely no hand in how the university was run and there was no academic abridgement.

The most exciting moment of my trip to Doha was our tour of Al Jazeera, the satellite network which broadcasts both in Arabic and English. This organization has featured prominently in the development of journalism in the Arab world. During operation Desert Fox and later the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Al Jazeera was one of the few news outlets reporting on the war, and reached its peak in its coverage of the Iraq War. Al Jazeera is credited by several scholars of Arab media in creating what is being called the “new Arab public sphere,” an emerging discussion in the media among Arabs about issues which effect Arabs. The tour of the studio was impressive. The employees were diverse and very young, and the journalists we met were passionate about the work they were doing in challenging the established international media organizations like CNN and BBC. Al Jazeera, they told us, turned the world’s attention to the Middle East, and promoted a new standard of journalistic integrity and practice in the region. It echoed what Margolis described as NU-Q’s goals for changing media in Qatar.

Ending our stay in Doha with dinner and free time in the famous open-air market allowed us some time to reflect on the four days we spent in the city and on our long flight back to Chicago. As we ate with the NU-Q students they were excited to hear what we thought about their city and their school, and we were equally enthusiastic in telling them.

Everything that I have studied about the Middle East points to the necessity of communication. Understanding begins with the ability to communicate, and as education spreads so does the ability and opportunity to develop understanding, and ultimately to create a stronger, more trusting, and more fulfilling relationship.

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