Chabad, Hamas and bagels in Doha: My Qatar Shabbat experience

The World Cup host is an anxious and uncertain place to be Jewish says Josh Glancy


It was Friday morning in Doha and I had a craving for some challah. Perhaps because I was 4,000 miles from home, perhaps it was the sound of the muezzin ringing around the rooftops, or perhaps I was just hungry for something fluffier than pita bread. Either way, only challah would do.

I’d heard a rumour that Rabbi Eli Chitrik of Istanbul was on the ground here giving out heimishe food, so I messaged the anonymous “Kosher in Qatar” Instagram account, saying I wanted in.

“Got any gear?” I inquired (I’m paraphrasing here).

“With pleasure,” came the response, along with instructions for where to meet.

The hotel, whose exact location remains under wraps, was walking distance from my World Cup apartment. I wandered over, unsure of what to expect.

Eli was standing outside the hotel, tzitzit flowing, black hat on his head, juggling two mobile phones, the very picture of a young Lubavitch rabbi. He welcomed me in and shoved two freshly baked challot into my hands.

Walking through the lobby of the hotel, a tall, nondescript Israeli man wished us Shabbat Shalom. “They put me in with the Israeli security guys,” Eli grinned.

In his hotel room were two huge containers full of challah rolls. In the wardrobe, where most people might hang their shirts, was a small pile of wrapped and filled bagels. Most of them had already been snaffled. “The demand has been insane,” Eli explained, handing me a couple.

In many ways, this is part of an encouraging Jewish World Cup story. People are making kosher food in Doha, despite it also being home to Hamas’s leadership-in-exile. Elsewhere in this tournament, we’ve seen Israeli journalists reporting, and clearly Israeli security are operating on the ground.

Flights are coming from Tel Aviv with Israeli and Palestinian football fans on them. The Lubavitchers are being their usual enterprising selves.

And, most importantly, I was able to take challah sandwiches to the England vs USA game, which cheered my gentile colleagues up to no end amid a dispiriting Three Lions performance.

Eating fresh bagels that had been cooked in Qatar Airways ovens felt miraculous to me. Was this the greatest Jewish baking triumph in the Middle East since Hebrew slaves decided to skedaddle from Egypt?

It’s tempting to place this story in an uplifting normalisation narrative, part of the greater acceptance of Israel in the region, reflected by the Abraham Accords. Arab countries may not like the Jewish state, but in the Gulf at least, they are willing to do business with Israel and acknowledge its existence.

The United Arab Emirates has synagogues now, where services include a prayer for the ruling family. There is a kosher restaurant in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.

Qatar is a different proposition, though, and the story is a very mixed one. This is a country that pours hundreds of millions of dollars a year into Gaza. Much of this is directed towards humanitarian aid, but much of it ends up in the pockets of Hamas. Qatar also maintains close links with the Taliban.

Qatari diplomats will tell you that their patronage of these groups enables them to play a key moderating role.

This is how they helped extricate Americans from Afghanistan during the shambolic withdrawal from Kabul and broker various Middle Eastern ceasefires. The rest of us may wonder how much “moderation” of these violent, retrograde organisations is really going on.

Qatar is remarkably Janus-faced on issues of Islam, terror and the West. It hosts crucial US and British airbases, but also houses known terrorists. Its malls are veritable shrines to western consumerism, but it also promotes a strict Wahabi form of Islam. It allows drinking and prostitution to take place, but only in hotel bars, so long as it doesn’t spill over into wider society.

These tensions and contradictions run deep in Qatari society.

All of which makes being an Israeli –— or even a semi-visible Jew –— an unusual and uncertain experience at this World Cup.

The Qataris have placed real emphasis on this being a tournament for the entire region, abiding by Fifa’s rules and allowing Israelis to attend and participate. But this is also a country that has promoted antisemitic conspiracies in its school textbooks. The handful of Jews that live here keep an understandably low profile.

As you may have seen from multiple viral clips, Israeli journalists covering the tournament have been harassed by Arab fans on the streets, told that their country doesn’t exist and that they aren’t welcome.

The Qatari authorities, so quick to confiscate a rainbow flag or ban pro-freedom banners from Iran fans, don’t appear overly bothered by these public expressions of hate. These ugly incidents are a reminder that while unelected leaders in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Morocco may have signed normalisation deals with Israel, the “Arab street” feels rather differently.

When Moroccan fans celebrated their victory over Belgium in downtown Doha’s Souq Waqif last Sunday, there were almost as many Palestine flags being waved as at a Corbyn-era Labour Party conference. Not all the people of Abraham are in accord.

I’ve honestly been quite unsure how to approach being a Jew here. In a couple of early conversations with Qataris, I mentioned being Jewish, curious to see how they would react.

The response was to stonewall it and move on to another subject.

People here aren’t always sure what to make of me. I look vaguely Arab, speak in Times English and wear a silver “chai” necklace. I’ve noticed a few eyes flickering to the Hebrew round my neck, but again, no one has said anything. Would it be different if there was no World Cup on?

On the way to dinner with a group of Arab journalists, I agonised over whether to fasten my top button and cover my necklace. I would normally leave it open. But some of the journalists were Gazan: might they take umbrage?

Or would it be cowardly to cover up? I buttoned and unbuttoned the shirt several times on the way to dinner, eventually deciding to leave it open, like the brave Maccabee that I am.

Everyone was unfailingly polite and didn’t mention the necklace, if they even noticed it. But throughout the meal I felt as though I had a giant blue Magen David flashing on my chest. Neurotic? Probably. But when the conversation turned approvingly to the harassment of Israeli journalists, I felt genuinely awkward.

Still, it was interesting to hear their thoughts. The group felt the limits of normalisation with Israel had been exposed by the tournament, and the real voice of the Arab world was being heard once more. I puffed quietly on my apple and mint shisha in the corner, wondering if they’d truly considered what it means to say that Israel doesn’t exist.

The glow of the World Cup illuminates all manner of political and cultural realities.

This tournament’s first outing in the Middle East has provided a sharp demonstration of how things in the region currently stand: Israel is keeping its people safe through fierce — at times oppressive — vigilance and hard-nosed realpolitik; much of the Arab world is still revolted by Israel’s existence and the status of the Palestinians; Arab powerbrokers are quietly accepting that Israel is an irrevocable reality and must form part of their geopolitical calculations.

And then you have the diaspora Jews, milling around uncertainly, unsure of where we fit in, nervously buttoning and unbuttoning our shirts.

For anyone with a stake in Israel or Palestine, it’s a fraught, anxious situation that has no obvious solution.

Meanwhile, I’ll be returning for more baked goods from Rabbi Eli this Shabbat. And I’ll always remember my bagels in Doha, a startling and delicious expression of Jewish culinary resilience in hostile terrain.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive