Marhaba was privileged to interview the well‑known British author and public figure, Frances Gillespie, who will be leaving Qatar after nearly 30 years, to hear her thoughts on how life in Qatar has changed over the last three decades and the career she has made for herself.
Fran and her husband, David, have at last decided to move back to the UK later this year, having worked and lived abroad for 40 years, first in Africa and then in Qatar. Both want to travel now around the UK from their home in the Perthshire highland village of Fortingall in Scotland, where the famous ‘Fortingall yew’, listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest vegetation in Europe, hangs over their garden wall.
Watching Qatar change
There were, of course, far more empty and undeveloped desert areas than today, and the roads outside Doha mostly consisted of two lanes. When the Gillespies arrived in 1985, the level of traffic on the roads was like that on a Friday morning nowadays, and one could travel from one side of Doha to the other in no more than fifteen minutes. ‘The north side of the city ended with the Doha Sheraton Hotel; the Corniche had recently been completed and the palm trees and lawns planted,’ she said. ‘It was easy to reach an open area of desert to go for long walks – now one needs to drive for at least 45 minutes to get away from the trash-strewn areas around the city, and the busy roads.’ The population was only around 220,000 in 1985 – now it’s over two million. Expatriates visiting the villages were often invited into homes by hospitable local folk for a coffee and chat, but today there are just too many people for similar hospitality to be offered.
I have known nothing but kindness and friendship from the Qatari people, and will follow closely Qatar’s progress even though I’m no longer in the country. I hope to return for visits.’
As a free-lance journalist, Fran has conducted many interviews over the years with the older generation of Qataris and expatriates, including some who took part in the very last pearling expeditions from Qatar. The well-known Qatari, Ali Ansari, talked to her in the late 1980s, shortly before his death at the age of eighty, and shared his memories of his childhood in Doha, including the fact that if his family wanted to visit their relatives in Al Wakra they thought nothing of getting up before dawn and walking – ‘travelling by leg-car’ was how he put it! The British merchant trader Lord Charles Denman was interviewed by Fran at the age of 92 in 2010, recalling his first visits to Doha in 1949, his relations with the ruler Sheikh Ali and the building of the first modern hospital. Fran has donated transcripts of these interviews to the National Museum of Qatar for their Oral Records, and also to the Origins of Doha Project.
Fran has recently been one of a team which has produced a book for the Ministry of Environment on the rich biodiversity of Irkaya Farm, located off Salwa Road near the sand processing plant. 76% of Qatar’s total number of 315 bird species are recorded there. Currently not open to the general public, the team hopes that the farm will be designated a protected reserve with an information centre and tours for schools and other groups, and will be firmly closed to the hunters who go there to shoot birds.
Getting involved in writing
An English teacher by profession, Fran arrived in Qatar in 1985 and taught at the British Council for six years before the first Gulf War. In the 1990s she turned to offering private tuition in English to Qatari and other students, and gave English lessons for 13 years at the small Japanese School, which at that time was located on JBK Compound, off the Salwa Road.
One of a family of archaeologists, Fran’s lifelong interest is in archaeology, and she lost no time when she came to Doha in getting in touch with staff at the Department of Antiquities and volunteering her services. For two seasons she drew small finds from the ongoing excavations at Al Zubara and the early Islamic settlement of Murwab, and has worked on many excavations since then. She invited the director of the Danish archaeological expedition to Qatar in 1956, Geoffrey Bibby, to come from his home in Denmark to lecture to the Qatar Natural History Group in 1998, and the following year she invited his colleague the ethnographer Klaus Ferdinand, author of the famous book Bedouins of Qatar, to Qatar. Together, Klaus Ferdinand and Fran arranged an exhibition of black and white photographs of the Bedouin way of life, taken in 1959, at the National Museum, which attracted thousands of visitors.
Although not a trained professional journalist, Fran has written for many years for the media, both in Qatar, UK and Africa. She began contributing to the ‘Gulf Times’ daily newspaper in 1995 when she submitted a report on the Japanese School’s New Year celebrations to the paper and the editor invited her to become a regular correspondent. She has continued ever since then to write for the paper, although less frequently now as she is so busy with her other publications, with two more books scheduled to be launched in June this year. She contributes to various magazines in Qatar, UK and the US and has a regular slot each month in Oryx, Qatar Airways’ inflight magazine, to which she also contributes feature articles.
I write about things I’m interested in, in the hope that other people are interested in them too.’
In 2000, Fran wrote several chapters for a coffee table book called Qatar, produced for an Islamic summit conference arranged by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Stacey International Publishers were approached to write the book, they contacted the British Ambassador for advice, who referred them to Fran. This was her first contribution to a book on the country. The popularity of her articles in ‘Gulf Times’ on environmental topics led her to put them together in her first solo book, Discovering Qatar, in 2006, which has sold over 8,000 copies since then and is now in its third edition. In November 2013, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing brought out her series of six books for young children on the fauna and flora of Qatar, Qatar Nature Explorer, sponsored by Occidental Petroleum of Qatar, sets of which are going into every school in the country. All Fran’s books are now published in both English and Arabic editions.
Discovering Qatar covers a wide range of subjects including the country’s natural history, traditional architecture, old forts and dhows, and Bedouin life. The book was sponsored first by RasGas and then by the Rayyan Mineral Water company, which also sponsors overseas speakers for the Qatar Natural History Group. This summer will see the release of two new books by Fran Gillespie: one is Tears from Heaven and is about pearl fishing in the Gulf, sponsored by Maersk Oil, a companion volume to her book aimed at junior high school-aged students, Hidden in the Sands, about the archaeology of Qatar, published last year and sponsored by the same company. Both books have linked websites.
The other book is The Blue Jackal, a collection of 18 traditional animal fables from Islamic lands, sponsored by Occidental Petroleum of Qatar. Fran says she was inspired to make this collection by her fascination with the illustrations of fauna on the artworks in the Museum of Islamic Art’s collection. The stories are much like Aesop’s fables, where animals talk, but coming from the East rather than the West. This particular project has taken two years to research and the fables are illustrated by Canadian artist Charlene Kasdorf, also a resident of Qatar, alongside art works from the MIA. The title comes from the hero of one of the stories, who fell into a vat of blue dye.
Fran has been involved in other ways of getting children engaged in the local community, having worked on an environmental website for school children – Be’ati Watani, meaning Our World – under the auspices of the Supreme Education Council and sponsored by Dolphin Energy. She was commissioned by the WWF in Dubai, who has already produced an environmental website for UAE schools and contacted Fran as they wanted a similar website about Qatar. At the time, it wasn’t evident to her just how big the project was going to be, aimed at eight levels from the youngest students up to high schoolers – fortunately, Fran says, her work on it coincided with COP18, the UN Climate Change Conference that took place in Doha in 2012, and she was able to glean the very latest facts and figures from that event.
What the future holds
Fran says she hasn’t made any firm plans for the future but will probably continue writing for her local community in Scotland as she has done in the past. She’ll miss her Qatari friends, the wonderful winter weather and the wide open spaces of the desert, and also the quiet little country she knew when she first came, but she recognises that one cannot stand in the way of progress. Marhaba wishes Fran and David all the best in their new life in the UK.
Author: Sarah Palmer
Frances Gillespie is also featured on Marhaba’s latest issue, M59, which will be in stores in April 2014. Grap your copy from the nearest bookstore or hypermarket for only QR20.
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