It's 9:03am, and Reem al-Kubaisi is frantically searching for her earphones. QatarDebate coach Mubarrat Wassey is a stickler for time, and training starts at 9am.
The reason for her search is that Reem – together with her fellow debaters on Team Qatar, which will be representing the nation at the Online World Schools Debating Championship (OWSDC) that starts this week – are learning the art of ‘virtual’ debating amid the Covid-19 pandemic. It means their preparations are a little different from this time last year.
Back then, the team were surrounded by papers, files and books in Qatar Foundation (QF) member QatarDebate’s classroom, dedicated to enabling them to prepare for major championships. But due to the pandemic, and the lockdown measures and travel restrictions it has led to, their training this year is purely online, as they equip themselves both for the OWSDC and the World Schools Debating Championship in Mexico City, which was due to be held this month but has now been postponed until January 2021.
Because of this delay, the organisers of the World Schools Debating Championship have given their endorsement for the OWSDC, to be held from July 17 to August 2. Team Qatar’s intensive training has been taking part online, including sparring against other national teams – such as those from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – and getting acquainted with the online tournament by taking part in the Helsinki Online Open Debating Championship earlier this month.
The Helsinki tournament showed them that hard work pays off, as they went on to win the championship, with Alanoud al-Thani being named the Best Novice Speaker as well as the eighth Best Speaker Overall prize. The championship consisted of 56 teams and featured some of the best university debate teams from across Europe, including those from the London School of Economics, Imperial College London, Trinity College Dublin, University of Glasgow and the University of Edinburgh, as well as universities in Berlin, Utrecht, Tallinn and Stockholm University.
“We feel like they are once again re-learning how to use Microsoft Teams, which is the platform we are using for online debating,” says Reem, who has been part of the QatarDebate community since 2017. She has just graduated from the International School of London and is about to join QF partner university Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q).
“But we have come a long way since our first online training on March 16, when the group discussions were centred on ‘how do I create a Teams profile’, ‘can we access it using our personal email accounts’, and ‘how do I upload my homework’ – as well as finding it cool that we were able to use different backgrounds!”
It has now been more than 100 days since the team has seen each other in person. Team Qatar training, like everything else, was abruptly halted in March because of the pandemic. QatarDebate subsequently moved training online.
Having been selected in January, the team trained bi-weekly up to April, before – following Ramadan, Eid and the exam period – intensive training began in June, with three sessions a week. This has been stepped up in July, with online sessions every day except on Fridays. And after over 120 hours of online preparation, wake-up calls, and technical glitches and solutions, this form of debate training has become part of the team’s new normal.
Team Qatar member and Al Bayan Secondary School for Girls student Moza al-Hajri, who is part of both the English and Arabic national debating teams, has been training in both languages online, and has not been fazed with the shift to online preparation. “While I truly miss the atmosphere of pre-Covid-19 training, where debates were more heated and everyone would interact more passionately in discussions, meeting via Microsoft Teams is not so bad and we are still able to have good and efficient training sessions,” she says.
“I am quite enjoying the online training and look forward to the online tournaments, since they are giving me something to do in my seemingly never-ending free time!”
As weeks of lockdown turned into months, the realisation that this year’s edition of the World Schools Debating Championship would have to be delayed dawned. The Qatari debaters are glad that the online tournament will help bridge the gap.
“It’s a great way of coping with the pandemic in a debating sense,” said Moza. “I think it will be a unique experience that will have its positive sides, and also its difficulties to overcome.
“I am really enthusiastic about it, and I can't wait to debate different topics with teams from all over the world.”
Amid the new reality of the pandemic, the members of Team Qatar say that as well as managing to continue their training, stay motivated, and sustain their work ethic, they have also become closer as a team supporting each other through this unusual shared experience – and embracing it.
“This has been quite an experience,” says team captain Alanoud al-Thani, who will also join GU-Q in the new academic year following her graduation from QF’s Qatar Academy Doha. “Having been a part of Team Qatar both last year and this year, I can see the differences and challenges involved in moving everything online.
“However, I feel we have managed to rise above the challenges, and with the support and guidance of our coach and QatarDebate, we have not only made the best of things given the circumstances, but have had a fun learning experience along the way.”