Alumni Profile: Jessica Davey-Quantick (BJH ’07)

by Alison Lang (BJ '07)
from Tidings, summer 2009

Imagine uprooting your life in Canada, spending 18 hours on a plane and landing in a strange new country in order to start a job in a field you've never worked in before. For Jessica Davey-Quantick (BJH ’07), this is life.

The King’s J-school grad moved across the world to the small Islamic country of Qatar (bordered by the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia) after accepting a position at Qatar Happening magazine. Two years later, she’s running the magazine, has spearheaded a major resdesign and generates the bulk of the content. 

After graduating from King’s, Davey-Quantick spent a summer working at a paper in Grand Prarie, Alberta and then returned to Nova Scotia for jobs at the Enfield Weekly Press and the Laker. But she soon found herself seeking broader horizons.

“I’ve wanted to work overseas since I was really little,” Davey-Quantick says over Skype. The seeds were planted early; Davey-Quantick’s mother is an activist who used to bring her two daughters to demonstrations. “When the RCMP would show up, my dad would take us for ice cream,” she remembers.

When a writing position at Qatar’s biggest glossy came down through the King’s alumni listserv in 2008, Quantick applied on a whim---“I really didn’t think I’d get it,” she says. Then her mother started an NGO in Uganda called Omwanna Ono and Davey-Quantick began helping her with media relations. After applying for the Qatar job, she spent three weeks in the East African country taking photos, doing interviews and following her mother on visits to local communities. She began to see the illuminating possibilities of cultural immersion. The first day back from Uganda, Davey-Quantick did a phone interview with the magazine’s editors. A week later, they called again---the job was hers.

Qatar’s proximity to the rest of the Middle East sent Davey-Quantick’s head spinning with possibilities
of international reportage. “I’ve always wanted to be a foreign correspondent, go into war zones, that sort of thing,” she says. “The prospect of going into an area that’s right in the middle of things was exciting.”As it turned out, the job didn’t send Davey-Quantick into the hot zones, but she still had to contend with the challenges that invariably accompany any rapid immersion into a new culture.

First was the scenery. “The first thing I thought when I touched down was that everything was very…beige,” she recalls. Sandstorms and monochromatic buildings comprise much of the scenery in Qatar. Later, when Davey-Quantick left the country to go on vacation, she and other expats began taking photos of trees. “People think we’re freaks, but we’re just so excited to see green,” she says.” The lack of foliage is one thing; grocery shopping is another. In Qatar, the stock at grocery stores is dictated by whichever imported goods make it over the border, and Davey-Quantick says it can be an arbitrary---and pricey---assortment indeed. “You can get all sorts of interesting things from India and Asia, but I’ve shocked myself with my willingness to spend $15 on a box of cereal from the States,” she says. “Things don’t last here, so when you see something you want, you buy a lot of it.
My pantry resembles a bomb shelter.”

And then there is, of course, the larger issue
that Qatar is an Islamic theocracy.
Books, films and the web are censored, mainly for sex---“I’ll never know what happened in that one scene in Avatar,” Davey-Quantick says---and during Muslim holidays like Ramadan, the entire country’s working hours shift and it becomes illegal to chew gum, eat or drink during daylight hours. In terms of dress, foreigners are expected to keep their shoulders covered, while Qatari women wear long abayas and men don tunic-like thobes.

After two years, Davey-Quantick seems well adjusted to the Qatari lifestyle. “I was prepared - I knew what I was getting into,” she says. And if the content Davey-Quantick produces for Qatar Happening is any indication,  Qatar boasts a vivid streak of modernity and individuality . One story profiles a young, abaya-clad woman who won a Twitter poetry competition. Photo spreads show young women spicing up their traditional garb with dazzling jewelry, designer handbags and Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses. And the magazine’s events listings offer a rich array of theatre events, food and film festivals and a thriving nightlife.

Davey-Quantick says the stories and redesigns she’s worked on during her time in Qatar also offer a candid insight into the country’s societal mores. Portions of stories can be removed with a moment’s notice; advertisements sometimes return from Qatar Happening’s censorship commission with haram (or “bad”) written across them with red pen. “If you’re asked to take out a sentence, you take out a sentence,” Davey-Quantick says. She recalls covering Hillary Clinton’s visit to the country February. “I didn’t realize that she is haram to a lot of people,” she says. “That piece got picked apart line by line.”

Another such incident occured when Davey-Quantick spoke to Academy Award-winning Palestinian filmmaker Scandar Copti, who lives in Qatar and works for the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. The influence of Israeli and Palestinian relations is integral to Copti’s work, but the story’s language was once again heavily curtailed. “I couldn’t say Tel Aviv, I couldn’t mention Israel, and don’t even think about saying Jew,” Davey-Quantick says. “I view these restrictions as a writing challenge. The story fits our magazine---how do I tell it?”

Censorship aside, Qatar definitely seems to be a country in a period of rapid growth, and Davey-Quantick points out that the young people of Qatar in particular are helping to move this process along. "We have so much education here, really first-rate colleges and universities, and the kids that graduate are so open, interested and engaged,” she says.

She has no plans to leave Qatar in the near future. . The  job is proof that the considerable experience Davey-Quantick has gained over the past two years will lead onward and upward. Working in Qatar sharpened her writing skills, provided job security, and the variety of stories she’s written has made her a more adaptable journalist. She's written about everything from bedouin camel racing to Serena Williams. Most importantly, she says she’s developed invaluable insights about human nature; the true gift of living and working abroad.

“People can be smart, funny, compassionate, windbags, pompous, incredible, conceited, and all very concerned about things around them regardless of their views or values,” Davey-Quantick says. “Living in Qatar has made me so much braver, and it’s opened things up for me in a way that simply didn’t happen before.”

All photos supplied by Jessica Davey-Quantick.

You can check out her work at http://www.qatarhappening.com.