Premiering Sunday, August 1, on Global Voices on PBS WORLD, Team Qatarintroduces us to the world of competitive high school debate. Five team members from the Muslim nation of Qatar rally behind debate veteran Alex Just, who was only 22 when the film was shot. A former president of the Oxford Union, Just joined BTB for a conversation about the film.
First off, let's go over the rules. This is not a debate or formal argument of any kind. At no point during the course of this conversation should you feel the need to contest anything I say or ask with fact, logic, or reason. Do you agree to these terms, Alex? Yes. That sounds fine to me.
When was your first competitive debate? When I was in high school, I was 13 and we had a debate club. On the first Friday of term, they have meetings for new members. And I can’t quite remember all of this, but my debate coach claims they had a game where you had to talk about any subject for a minute and I gave a speech about sausages. I spoke for a full minute and impressed my debate coach Mr. Wylie enough that he worked with me for six years and made me the debater I am today.
How did you get involved with leading a debate team from Qatar? That all came about through a project I had been involved with at Oxford. I was elected president of the Oxford Union and I hosted some students who came for a special debate that was run by a charitable foundation supported by the queen of Qatar. I did a one-hour workshop with these students and eventually got invited to Doha to run a whole week of workshops with high schools and universities. About 750 students turned up, which was incredible from our perspective because we went into these halls and there were just loads of students — two thirds of whom were women. The queen found out about this the day before we were supposed to fly back to Oxford.
We got a call from the palace asking if we could meet Her Highness. We did, and this bit, of course, could have been a film in itself. We had 35-minute meeting with the queen and we told her all about the students and how much appetite and hunger there was for debating and that we would like to do more of it. We said we could compete in the World Schools Debating Championships. They were very generous in terms of financing — this was back in 2007 — so we got a green light very quickly to do everything with the help of a team in Doha. We ran a pilot program, which produced those five students you see in the film.
Of the five members of the debate team, only one is actually from Qatar; the others are from Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran. Is this kind of amalgamation typical in Qatar? Yes, very much so. Qatar is obviously quite a cosmopolitan place; Doha in particular saw a huge boom and so all sorts of factors brought in a lot of talent. Fatima’s dad was a surgeon who moved the family from Iraq; Ayesha’s father was an engineer. We wanted the team to be balanced for competitive purposes so people could draw on their own background and knowledge. It ended up being quite an interesting cross section of the region.
You taught oratorical skills and ways to build and enrich an argument to the team. What did you learn from them? I think they had had very little training and background in debate. So seeing how resilient they were in such a competitive environment was remarkable. They were just unfazed by the prospect of going up against these terrifying English boys. I mean, being taken to America — which to be honest is quite a big deal, certainly for Fatima who had never been to the States before — they just enjoyed all of it. I was really impressed and I got a lot out of them. Seeing how people under fire can be tested and achieve great things.
Without spoiling the movie, which premieres this Sunday on Global Voices, give us your best advice for a team heading into a debate with England. And what makes the English (at any age, it appears) such skilled debaters? The best advice we gave them — and that I would give anybody — is to not be too scared of the English and their reputation as orators. They were all trained at about the same age as our students, but the English do sound very good. I told them not to worry about how polished and stylized a team is but instead to listen to their arguments. They had to make a convincing case that their arguments were wrong. One of the Australian judges in the film talked about the English team’s outward projection of confidence, the illusion that no one could possibly question their authority. On the other hand, Team Qatar was probably quite intimidating too because after all, we had the cameras.
You were president of the Oxford Union in 2007. Looking over the list of past presidents, we find Benazir Bhutto, Andrew Sullivan, and countless British politicians. When are you thinking of running for office, Alex? I won’t be announcing anything on your website, I’m afraid! I’m currently at law school about to become a trainee barrister, so my immediate priorities are helping people out through the law and putting my debating skills to good use. But if and when I announce, I’ll give you a heads up.
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