Omar in Qatar

Last year Omar Chatriwala moved from Austin, Texas to Orange County to help get Squeeze OC off the ground. Recently he decided to move again, this time from Orange County to Qatar to help get Al Jazeera's English-language channel off the ground. Chatriwala's blog, OC in OC, is among the most popular blogs on the SqueezeOC website, of which he was an editor. He has traveled from Austin's city limits to the middle of the Middle East with a brief layover behind the Orange Curtain, all for the sake of helping media outlets make news. We decided to make a little news out of him.

Weekly: So what brings you to Qatar?

Omar: I'm in Doha for a job with Al Jazeera—the newly launched English channel and re-launched English website.

I see. Al Jazeera. So when exactly did you start hating America?

If I were to actually hate America, which I've contemplated (but decided not to), it would've started long before my stint in Orange County. Seriously though, sometimes you just need a break from the rampant consumerism.

You spent about a year here, yes?

Thirteen months, after moving from Austin, Texas. Which was an awesome city. I was there 4 years, but in a couple of months I quickly grew sick of hearing people going on about "I'm the type of person that..."

How do you mean?

Everyone tries to stick out and show off their unique weirdness by being utterly mundane and boring.

Our last photo editor, Tenaya Hills, moved to Austin recently. It must be interesting, what with festivals like SXSW and Austin City Limits. What were you doing there, and where were you before that?

Before Austin I was in Bahrain for three years. In Austin I went to school, University of Texas, freelanced a little, talked to homeless people, interned with SXSW and got a degree in journalism. SXSW didn't pay me, but they did give me all access, which was fun. I also worked at the university for a bit, building "teaching tools" for staff like a video-based website to teach American Sign Language, but on the whole I sat around, drank coffee and played video games. I highly recommend Einstein's Arcade.

So what brought you from Austin, a hotbed of cultural diversity and creative talent, to Orange County, a sinkhole of retrograde conservative thought?

Really? Doesn't everything come from OC?

Only television shows and Cold War Kids.

People make millions by selling really, really big paper clips there.

Um....and that's a draw?

Well, i presume that takes some creativity. I was looking for a good journalism-related gig, and though the community paper outside Houston that offered me a job sounded like it could be fun. But it was a really small news market and I wasn't sure I'd be able to afford dinner on the salary. The alternatives to that were the about-to-launch SqueezeOC and early interviewing w/ a similar publication in Milwaukee. I was leaning towards Milwaukee, but everyone else told me i was crazy—sun-kissed beaches and all that.

How'd you get on to the Squeeze bandwagon?

Accidentally I suppose. Being web-savvy, I wouldn't say I spammed my resume, but I sent it out to lots of jobs, including ones I didn't necessarily want.

I applied there for a 'super user' position that I didn't want and probably wasn't qualified for, but after talking to Iris [Yokoi, editor of SqueezeOC] for a couple months (while they were preparing to launch) and freelancing a multimedia flash package for them, she offered me a position as web editor.

When did OC in OC start?

That's a title I'll also attribute to Iris. She thought it was very catchy (I'll reserve comment). It was actually pretty early on, probably November or December, that we were soliciting bloggers for the site, and either Iris or Erlina [Tulabut, Senior Web Editor] suggested I blog on my experiences as a newbie. I was game, but a slacker, so didn't move on that—but a couple other people wrote in to say that they'd like to take that angle. Iris and Erlina again asked me and I gave in. I'd posted the first entries on a community forum of longstanding friends, so repurposed those, post-dated them, and we launched the blog in January.

Now that you're no longer in OC, what happens to the blog?

I think Jit Fong [Chin, Squeeze staff writer – don't call her Dipthong] first suggested just scratching out the second OC and scribbling in Doha in the title. I agreed to blog about my transition out of OC for a bit, free of charge even, but I'm not sure if I'll keep it going more than a month—not sure how relevant a blog from Doha would be to a OC audience.

Speaking of Doha, what exactly are you doing for Al Jazeera?

That's tricky as, on my first day at work, HR gave me a pack of papers—two of which explained I kinda have to get permission to talk about Al Jazeera, as every employee is an ambassador for the channel. But the position's that of journalist. No tv spots for me though. I work for the website.

Fair enough. Can you talk about how they recruited you?

Hopefully—but if they fire me, I'm expecting a position at OC Weekly.

I got an email over a mailing list—Muslim American Journalists Association. It was just letting everyone know Al Jazeera was looking for folks. I wasn't passionately interested in the job, but clicked the link and submitted my resume all the same, then promptly forgot about it. I don't know when that was exactly, but it was probably a month or two later that i got a call on a Sunday morning at 7:30 a.m.

Quite annoying.

The voice said he was calling from Al Jazeera and wanted to interview me.

I said "Dude, it's 7:30 a.m. sunday morning," but since i wasn't about to fall back asleep we continued along.

What staggering professionalism.

It was pretty open and shut—I guess the interviewer was already quite interested; they just wanted to make sure i wasn't psycho or lying on my cv [curriculum vitae – a resume in the rest of the world]. I probably spent a month deliberating.

There were a couple dissenting voices, like my father telling me I'd never be able to get a job stateside again, but on the whole, everyone was thoroughly encouraging. Even Iris! I finally got around to telling her a month before my escape.

In over a year you moved from Austin to Orange County to Qatar. How would you compare the three?

None are so different. People in OC thought I'd hit culture shock from Austin to OC.

But I didn't; I could eat at a McDonald's in all three. Moving to India, China or Japan might be a bit more shocking.

I think Austin was my favorite, but after 4 years I got tired of it—the indie spirit of the place. Orange County, to its credit wasn't as bad as I expected. Sure, flip through a local rag and you'll primarily find body augmentation ads, and it was a bit alarming the extent superficiality was widely accepted-

Nay, demanded!

-but I liked a lot of it.

My first week I wandered around downtown Santa Ana, shocked to be in this town where nobody spoke English. Then the same day I drove down Westminster Ave. and found myself lost in Little Saigon. So that stuff's enjoyable.

Having spent a good 12 or so years in the Middle East, I loved the Little Gaza/Little Arabia area—and to be honest, even walking down the beach and checking out art galleries in Laguna was great fun.

But Doha is already growing on me. Things tend to go at a different pace, one could say. Things happen when they happen. I waited 3 months to get a work visa; first the offices were blasted by Asian Games visa requests, then it was Ramadan, et cetera. But i dig the lack of social pressures here, in terms of appearance and such.

What's the perception of Americans, or The OC, in Qatar?

I haven't hobnobbed too much with Qataris, but the Brits I'm surrounded by have mostly heard of it. One Londoner (of Lebanese descent) is in love w/ the place. He thinks it the ideal lifestyle, though he advocates the counter- or sub-culture of OC—the indie music scene, etc. Other people just say "Ohhhhhhh, Orange County...I see..." Then they kinda frown and look away.

Any conclusory thoughts? Do you miss us?

Some aspects I miss—dude, they don't brew coffee here! If it's not espresso it's instant! But it was the diversity and lower-income aspects of OC that I enjoyed, and that I can find here too.

Oh, there's not as many homeless people here (I haven't actually met one yet).


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