News| From the students: Ten days in Qatar

From the students: Ten days in Qatar

10. May 2010 Doha. Skyscrapers actually scraping the skies, and cranes on them, relentlessly building more and more floors; cultural monuments, which are monumental but, primarily, large; men in suits but also in traditional Arab robes, women in niqabs and burkas, but also without them – Doha, a metropolis of the Arab world, where the sun warms the streets up to over 20 °C even in February. But to explain how in fact I got to Doha in February and how the Educa Foundation helped me in this I have to take you a couple of months and several thousand kilometers back.

It was April 2009, and I focused on the stage of the Nymburk municipal theater. Although only a few moments before I had accepted there the Debate League Champion cup (, I was tensely waiting for the results of a much more important short-listing. The reason is that for the preceding two months, a competition was running for members of the Czech national team to be delegated to the World Schools Debate Championship 2010, globally the most prestigious event of its kind. Although I had been on the Czech team in the preceding two years, representing our country in Washington, D.C., in 2008 and later also in Athens as the captain, nothing was certain for me. That competition, which required extensive factual research and honing of skills, was in fact packed with almost 20 of the most able and best English speaking people whom I’d had the honor of meeting in my life so far, of whom three in the end even surpassed some more experienced earlier members of the national team. When, then, I heard my name called out and at last climbed to the stage as one of the debaters in the national team for the 2010 championship – the very championship that was to take place in the Arab world for the first time ever – I felt an electric thrill all over my body.

Can I take you to Doha yet? No. And why: the reason is that starting in April, we were in for a long preparatory stage involving almost 20 weekend “meetings”, during which we thoroughly fine-tuned the content and the form of our debates, and participated in four international tournaments in Olomouc, Ljutomer, and Košice, and, finally, the European Championship in Stuttgart, where we qualified as high as the octo-finals.... By then, the trainers, Kristýna Blažková and Michal Pečeňa, had performed the best training work I’d ever been through. And although the combination of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, challenging enough as it is, with another so intellectual challenge almost broke my neck, in the end I entered the world’s most prestigious debate championship as an Open Gate student: head up, shoulders square.

And now I am getting to how the Educa Foundation supported me in my efforts. It is thanks to its grant to me that I could afford to fly to Qatar and back.

And so yes, Doha at last. Turkish Airlines flew me to Qatar via Istanbul; I got stuck in Bahrain for ten hours, but did not mind. Having passed through long passport control (Qatar, like the other Arabian Peninsula countries, insists on visas for foreigners and also on a thorough check of everything entering the country) and a cab ride, I was put up in a room with the only boy in the German team, Max Stumpp, at whose school (btw, an elite public boarding school) the Czech national team had stayed during the European Championship in Stuttgart. And following a wink or two, badly needed because of the sleepless hours in Bahrain, nothing but preparations for debates…
And there was something to prepare for. The four propositions concerned ethics, multiculturalism, and international criminal law: (1) That every country should have the right to possess nuclear weapons; (2) That doctors should report evidence of marital abuse to the police; (3) That terrorist suspects should have the right to a trial in civilian courts and (4) That we should support military intervention in Somalia. Naturally, in the many months for which we had been preparing we had studied several hundred pages on each proposition, and several thousand pages in the case of international law issues. However, the painstaking and meticulous formulation of the speeches that actually can be prepared beforehand, and the making up of as intelligent responses as possible to as many counterattacks as can only be anticipated, is a process that only ends ten minutes before the debate. I do not even dare estimate how much time we spent on chiseling every single sentence of the opening opposition speech on the question of jurisdiction for terrorists.

In the actual debates, we managed to maintain the Czech Republic’s traditional standard. Two victories, over Bulgaria and Uganda; six adjudicators’ votes won out of a total of 24. Unfortunately, we lost the remaining debates, often by the narrowest margin of half a point. And although a success rate of 25% on the international scale is not bad at all, we were all a bit disappointed because we knew that we could have done better. After all, it was not only I who had been flying over to Qatar with the conviction that I would be the best speaker in the world in the category of those for whom English is a foreign language, rather than the 22nd.

Sour grapes? No way. Although we did not qualify for the later rounds, we found the following: the Pakistanis are witty and friendly; the Indians are really miraculous; the Singaporeans are extremely nice; and the Argentineans, Thais, and Kuwaitis (ladies) are simply people as we are (in the case of the Thais, IB students as we are). Even if for nothing else, the Qatar anabasis was a huge lesson in tolerant multicultural coexistence – and a lesson that something like this actually is possible. During those two weeks I made a lot of friends, of whom I will now not let go just like that. And not only those from “the global village” but also from Qatar itself.

One interesting point on Qatar at the end. The traditional markets may still be bustling, they may be huge, and you may really bargain there like hell, but the place where the genuine Qatar culture burgeons is ... shopping malls. Really: although at the school where we debated we saw physical education classes consisting basically of the traditional dance in robes and with swords (!), and although we saw that boys and girls going to separate schools is taken seriously in Qatar, two hours spent in a shopping mall clearly showed us how things are as far as the preservation of traditional culture is concerned: Skateboards and jeans from Diesel for boys, miniskirts from Prada and transparent stockings (“to cover their knees”) for girls – and such a ruckus as I had never before seen at the largest market in town, the Souq Waqif.

Ten days in Qatar have given me a lot: brand new experiences, brand new friends, and a brand new view of Islam, and the whole Muslim world. Let me close by citing a slogan, the widespread use of which in Qatar shows that they have progressed much farther than we have in some aspects: “It’s better to debate a problem without finding a solution than resolve the problem definitively without debating it.”

Šimon Podhajský, OPEN GATE student
The Educa Foundation supports Šimon Podhajský in his studies at OPEN GATE high school.

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