Friday, February 8, 2013

The Conspicuous Consumption of Food in Qatar

Note: Throughout this blog, I refer to the sociological terms "conspicuous consumption" and "conspicuous leisure." Conspicuous consumption is displaying high social class through the consumption of highbrow (or sophisticated) goods or services. Conspicuous leisure is displaying high social class through pursuing highbrow activities or interests.

      When I first moved to Qatar, I did not expect it to be at all different from my hometown of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. That assumption was only half-true. Both countries probably are very similar to the eyes of, say, a foreigner. To my homesick eyes, though, I noticed how slight differences between both societies made such a big difference. Abayas in Jeddah, for instance, are more colorful than the black yet elaborately embroidered Qatari abayas. The thobes worn by Qatari men have two awkward folds in the back, and the sight of it always bothers me because my inner Saudi Arabian feels that it's just plain wrong. That's only my opinion, really.

      One of the most unexpected phenomenons I noticed, though, was how quickly trends caught up with almost all of my Qatari classmates, especially with food. This was unlike Jeddah, where trends did not occur and change so swiftly, mainly due to its large population of nearly four million in contrast to Doha's small Qatari community. During the first few months of living here, everyone was absolutely insane over Sugar and Spice, a bakery that had just recently opened. After that, it was Shake Shack's burgers and fries, which had opened a short while after Villaggio Mall's much awaited reopening. Soon after trying out my first Shake Shack burger in December, believing I had reached the very pinnacle of ultimate coolness, I realized that this cavewoman was too late to leave her cave, as the trend had moved on to (once again) the recently opened Magnolia Bakery.

Obvious picture is obvious.
      It was then that I decided to investigate whatever patterns of social behavior that could emerge with this repeated conspicuous consumption. First and foremost, it is interesting to note that this particular form of conspicuous consumption manifests differently in Qatar than more common forms of conspicuous consumption (such as purchasing luxury goods, for instance.) The consumption of food is not only limited to Qataris; people of different social classes also have access to these foods (though they are significantly pricier than other options, which could discourage middle-class customers.) Instead, Qataris conspicuously consume these foods as a way of "keeping up with the trend", or merely out of curiosity, because store openings cause a rather big commotion in the rather small community of Qataris. This conspicuous consumption can also manifest into a form of conspicuous leisure, with many social events or gathering centering around these "trends" and/or recent openings.

Cheesecakes and Magnolia Bakery's specialty: Banana pudding.

Muffins, cakes, and cupcakes, after a driver came in and raided
the previously full selection for his Qatari employers.
      To be honest, I was somewhat afraid that I would arrive to the bakery only to find no apparent pattern of social behavior, but my worry was absolutely unnecessary. I discovered several interesting patterns of social behavior associated with this conspicuous consumption. These behaviors can be divided amongst two categories of social rankings: Qataris and foreigners (specifically Filipinos, Europeans, and Americans).

       When there is an all-female Qatari group, they almost always sit in the farthest, most isolated spot in the bakery. They tend to order several slices of "big" sweets such as cakes and pies, alongside several hot drinks. Other women simply purchase several large cakes for take away. Qatari men, on the other hand, sit as close as possible to the entrance, but still attempt to generally isolate themselves from others. Some Qatari men also purchase cakes for take away, but they splurge significantly more than their female counterparts. For instance, one Qatari man purchased cakes for nearly 600 Qatari Riyals (possibly a public display of wealth?)

      Foreigners generally have a more casual attitude about the bakery. Unlike the Qataris, who seem to want to savor every bite and remain in the bakery for as long as possible, foreigners are hastier, with the majority of them purchasing sweets for take away rather than eating them inside the bakery. The few foreigners who did eat inside Magnolia Bakery, though, demonstrated different behavior than the Qataris. The majority of them would order smaller sweets, such as cookies, brownies, and cupcakes. All these sweets were shared, and some even shared drinks. It is interesting to note that all foreign children sat next to their parents, and were only given small portions of the shared sweets. On the other hand, all Qatari children sat in front of their parents and had their own sweets, while other children were accompanied by a nanny/nannies or left to wander about in the bakery. 

      What makes this public form of consumption and leisure conspicuous to Qataris is their behavior and approach towards it. Young Qataris are more serious and passionate about the experience, so to speak, posting both Twitter statuses and Instragram photos retelling their experience. They also have a tendency to splurge at these trendy locations, buying several expensive food items at once, which is very much unlike foreigners. Nonetheless, it was quite fascinating to notice these two highly contrasting behaviors between two different social classes within a single bakery, in a country as small as Qatar.

Yo, Magnolia Bakery. I'm really happy for your
sweets, and I'ma let you finish. But my grandma
makes the best sweets of ALL TIME! ALL TIME!

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